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Student Success Depends on Testing and Accountability

• Patricia Levesque

The Common Core State Standards raise the academic bar in our K-12 classrooms with their focus on in-depth learning and critical thinking. That has been a rare point of agreement among most school superintendents, teachers, teachers’ unions, school reformers and others involved in the public education debate.

Where the disagreement begins is the discussion over accountability provisions tied to the new standards. Simply put, there are those who want assessments that measure mastery of the standards to matter in evaluating schools and teachers. And there are those who don’t.

In the latter camp are Randi Weingarten and Linda Darling-Hammond, who recently co-authored a piece in The Huffington Post critical of high-stakes testing. They argued that an “end-of-year sit-down test cannot capture’’ all the challenging skills that accompany the new standards.

If this were true, then why do we have high-stakes Advanced Placement exams to determine whether a student has mastered advanced physics or calculus?

Or why do so many universities rely on high-stakes ACT and SAT tests for admissions and scholarships? Why do we have high stakes GRE exams, bar exams, CPA exams, military entrance exams and so on and so forth.

We have them because well-crafted tests can provide an objective measure of what students and professionals know.  Like it or not, success in life depends to a large degree on success in passing tests. Testing children early ensures they are prepared for the world awaiting them, that they are mastering the basic skills necessary for success in later grades, college and beyond.

Opponents of accountability do not want to hold adults responsible for teaching children. They want guaranteed paychecks and optional effectiveness. Adoption of the Common Core State Standards has given them an opening to once again pursue this agenda. If the tradeoff for better standards is eliminating provisions that ensure teachers are teaching them and students are meeting them, then the entire Common Core effort will have been for naught.

I remember well the education landscape before accountability. Teachers and kids went to their classrooms, but whether the former were effective or the latter learned anything was optional and unknown. The result was that disadvantaged students fell through the cracks by the millions.

I saw this firsthand in Florida, where about 70 percent of low-income and minority fourth graders were functionally illiterate in the 1990s. Years of attempted reform that included tests without accountability proved futile. What finally moved the needle in a significant way was when we attached consequences for failure and rewards for success to the test scores.

These policies reversed decades of failure and made Florida one of the nation’s leaders in academic gains, according to test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). The major beneficiaries have been traditionally disadvantaged students. Florida’s low-income fourth graders now top the nation in NAEP reading results. Florida is the only state over the past 10 years to have closed the black-white achievement gap in both fourth and eighth grade math and reading.

We produced these gains without major increases in funding whereas other states have plowed more and more dollars into education with little to show for it. You can’t buy success by increasing your investment in a system that is not working.

In their argument against accountability, Weingarten and Darling-Hammond point to alternative strategies being adopted in California. They involve more funding as well as a “Local Control Accountability Program’’ to guide school spending and a “California Collaborative” to assess what is working and what is not in the schools.

“This new path has been succeeding,’’ they wrote, noting increases in the graduation rate between 2011 and 2013, and gains in California’s 2013 NAEP results.

But the policies they are touting largely weren’t in effect during the graduation increases between 2011 and 2013, or when the 2013 NAEP tests were administered. In fact, the state that made record NAEP gains last year was Tennessee, which had enacted very aggressive accountability reforms.

Weingarten and Darling-Hammond also note a backlash against the Common Core standards in New York, which they attribute to accountability policies.  Students did poorly on state exams based on the new standards, causing the New York State United Teachers (union) to withdraw its support from Common Core.

How do you support standards one year, and then abandon them the next?

And if this is the fault of accountability provisions, how do you explain the Success Academy charter schools in New York City, which serve primarily low-income students. They embrace accountability and rely heavily on testing and data to drive results.

Last year, 82 percent of Success Academy students tested proficient in math, compared to 30 percent of their peers in the rest of the state. Fifty-eight percent of Success Academy students tested proficient in language arts compare to 26 percent in the rest of the state.

And so we have the same standards and same accountability policies with entirely different results. That makes me think the problem isn’t with accountability.

Lastly, Weingarten and Darling-Hammond claim that high-stakes testing punishes children. Ensuring that schools teach students what they will need to know in order to graduate from high school and move on to college or a career is not punishment.

It is securing their future. We need to worry more about a student’s future than the protests of adults who would shirk that responsibility.

About the author

Patricia Levesque @levesquepat

Patricia is the Chief Executive Officer for the Foundation for Excellence in Education. She served as Governor Jeb Bush’s deputy chief of staff for education, enterprise solutions for government, minority procurement, and business and professional regulation. Previously, Patricia served six years in the Florida Legislature in the Speakers Office and as staff director over education policy. Contact Patricia at