Rethinking Accountability For Education, Post-Pandemic.
It made sense for states to cancel the big end-of-year standardized reading and math test even before it became obvious that many students will never be back to school this spring to take the tests. In this extraordinary year, the tests were never going to supply valid data that could be compared to other years. Now that this year looks to be a “short” year for students, the same argument should be made for next year’s test as well. If (please, God) students go back to school next fall, most will be starting out with less preparation than any class in recent memory. Not only will they have been shorted academic content, but primary students who haven’t been in a classroom in over half a year will not easily slip back into a school routine in just a day or two. In other words, next year will also be a short year. The Big Standardized Tests would once again be a waste of time, time that could be better spent on instruction.
But for the past 20 years, the Big Standardized Test has been the center of accountability for school districts, individual schools, and classroom teachers. With the test on hold, this is the perfect time to revisit accountability tools for education. Some folks have tried to suggest that the COVID-19 pandemic underlines the importance of testing and therefor underlines the importance of our old high stakes testing system. In fact, it does the opposite. COVID-19 testing is a simple binary; do you have the virus or not? But it is absurd to suggest that a single standardized math and reading test can somehow answer a binary question like, “Is this child well-educated or not?” Even ed reform fans have known for a while that the big standardized test does not deliver useful information. The pandemic reminds us that when it comes to testing, you need something that provides a clear answer to a clear question. It’s time to scrap the big standardized high-stakes tests entirely, and replace them with a system that would provide real accountability. Any such system will need to start by answering a few simple questions. The defining question for any accountability system is this: Accountable to whom, for what? The “to whom” part is the hard part of educational accountability, because classroom teachers serve a thousand different masters. Teachers need to be accountable to their administration, to their school board, to their students, to the parents of their students, to the taxpayers who fund the school and pay their salaries, to the state, to the students’ future employers, and to their own colleagues. School administrators also need to be accountable to those various stakeholders, but in different ways. Each set of stakeholders also has a wide variety of concerns; some parents are primarily concerned with academic issues, while others give priority to their child’s emotional health and happiness. Parents may want to know if their children are on track for future success, or how their children’s progress compares to others. Those are two different measures, just as “How tall is my child” and “Is my child the tallest in class” are two different questions, each of which can be answered without answering the other. Taxpayers want to know if they’re getting their money’s worth. State and federal politicians may want to see if benchmarks they have imposed on schools are being met. Teachers want to know how well their students are learning the various content the teachers have been delivering. Administrators may want to identify their “best” and “worst” teachers. School boards may want to know if their new hires are on track. Answers to every single one of these questions require different measures collected with different tools. Some questions can’t be answered at all (there is no reliable way to rank teachers best-to-worst). One of the biggest fallacies of the ed reform movement has been the notion that a single multiple-choice math and reading test can somehow measure everything. The reform dream was to be able to reduce school quality to a simple data point, a score or letter grade that tells us whether a school is any good or not. This is foolish. Ask any number of people to describe their idea of an “A” school; no two descriptions will match. A single grade system must by definition be reductive and useless for anything except as a crude tool for punishing some schools and marketing others. Teachers and their unions are not opposed to accountability; they are opposed to accountability measures that are random and invalid. Meanwhile, accountability discussions never seem to include measures that would hold politicians accountable for getting schools the support and resources that they need. A good example would be the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), a law that Congress passed to hold schools accountable for properly educating students with specials needs, and also a law that Congress has never come close to fully funding. K-12 school accountability is possible and desirable. Robust and useful methods are out there (check out Jack Schneider’s Beyond Test Scores for a good example). But any system that could offer true accountability in education requires long, complicated conversations (involving more than policy wonks, lobbyists and politicians) about what exactly we want to measure, how it can be measured, and how we want to use the data. The high-stakes testing model was slammed into place without any such conversation. The argument has often been that such conversations would take too much time. Well, we’ve got plenty of time right now, and a situation that can help clear our thinking about what we really, really want from schools. Let the conversations begin.