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The Value of Comprehensive State Accountability Systems

• ExcelinEd

Marc Tucker, the president of the National Center on Education and the Economy, has deemed accountability a failure.

He reveals this in an ongoing series in his Top Performers blog on Education Week. Not surprisingly when he began, Tucker was cheered on by Diane Ravitch.

In the excerpt, Tucker dismisses accountability by noting that there has been “no perceptible improvement in student performance among high school students (which, when you get right down to it, is what really matters) as a whole…”

This was based on his analysis of high school scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

Interestingly, someone else once looked at high school NAEP scores and wrote about them, also in Education Week. The analysis was headlined: “12th Grade NAEP Scores are Meaningless.”

  • It noted that, “The National Assessment Governing Board (NAGB), which oversees NAEP, has known for years that 12th graders don’t try to do well on the tests. The students know that the tests don’t count, that there are no individual scores, that no one will ever know if they did well or poorly, and they are not motivated to do their best.”

This was written by Diane Ravitch.

In fact, groups of school district superintendents, principals and teachers looked at the problem in the mid 2000’s. Their conclusion: “The validity and credibility of the NAEP 12th grade results are severely compromised by the poor participation of both schools and students and by the perceived low motivation of students to try their best on a test that has no consequences for them or their schools.” This is partially due to the nature of 12th grade NAEP, which, unlike the fourth- and eighth-grade NAEP exams, is not required under No Child Left Behind as a condition of receiving federal funding.

There is much better data to be used in evaluating the impact of test-based accountability on high school results. And if Tucker believes that “when you get right down to it” high school results are what matter, one wonders why he didn’t consider them.

But we shall:

Most states turned to more rigorous accountability during the 1990s. And these accountability systems have evolved and become more sophisticated over time. In 2002, only 32 states used student achievement results but now all 50 states do. The number of states using A-F letter grades has risen to 14. Today many states are using multiple measures to evaluate school performance, including dropout rates, attendance, graduation rates, and even student surveys.

The results are undeniably positive.

Dropout rates are declining. To quote from the National Center for Education Statistics: “Reflecting the overall decline in the status dropout rate between 1990 and 2011, the rates also declined for Whites (from 9 percent to 5 percent), Blacks (from 13 percent to 7 percent), and Hispanics (from 32 percent to 14 percent).”

Schools and teachers that are held accountable for all students have encouraged growing numbers of them toward more rigorous coursework. This summation comes from the College Board: “Over the past decade, the number of students who graduate from high school having taken rigorous AP courses has nearly doubled, and the number of low-income students taking AP has more than quadrupled.”

And getting back to NAEP, this is what its 2011 High School Transcript Study reported: “In 2009, graduates earned over three credits more than their 1990 counterparts, or about 400 additional hours of instruction during their high school careers. In 2009, a greater percentage of graduates completed higher curriculum levels with greater course requirements than 1990 or 2005 graduates.”

In fact, according to the just-released Building a Grad Nation report, the U.S. public high school graduation rate has risen to 80 percent for the first time ever. This accomplishment has been “driven by dramatic gains in graduation rates among Hispanic and African American students,” and the reduction of dropout factories, which declined by more than one-third in the past decade.

High school students obviously are doing better by any credible measure. But that comes with the disclaimer that we still are a long ways away from an education system that prepares all students for college or a career.

We believe accountability is the best way to get there. We have seen this in Florida. In 1999, Florida began its journey to improve its education system by passing sweeping reforms focused on transparency, accountability, high expectations, and choice. As part of that, Florida implemented an A-F grading system that rewards success, exposes failure, and informs parents in a way that helps all schools improve. As a result, Florida has become one of the nation’s leaders in elevating disadvantaged students and closing achievement gaps. Between 2003 and 2013, Florida was the only state to make statistically significant progress on the White-Black achievement gap in all four NAEP exams, and since 1999, Florida’s graduation rates for Black and Hispanic students have increased over 20 percent.

Similarly, Tennessee recently raised standards, expanded school choice, revamped teacher support, and incorporated student learning data into teachers’ evaluations. These bold accountability reforms led to historic gains on the 2013 NAEP fourth- and eighth-grade reading and math exams.

And as much as Tucker bemoans accountability, he as much concedes that it was a response to a situation in which teachers’ unions had taken too large a role in public education with the acquiescence of school boards. “So, for all practical purposes,” he wrote, “no one is in charge, and there is no accountability for results.”

Tucker promises better solutions than accountability reforms now being adopted by many states. To date we have seen high-sounding but vague ideals about remaking the public education system to mimic the best performing nations in the world. He would, for example, shed the industrial union model used by teachers and replace it with a more appropriate professional model designed to increase the quality of incoming teachers and to promote excellence.

Who could argue with that? The unions might argue with what appears to be his call for eliminating local unions.

In any case, we anxiously await his solutions that can be put into policies, passed by legislatures, and then be approved in collective bargaining sessions.

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