The National Center for Fair & Open Testing
-- Spring 2004
These draft Principles were developed by an informal alliance of education and civil rights organizations, together with individual activists, educators and researchers, for public discussion purposes.
"Accountability" has become perhaps the fundamental tool for instituting changes in public schools. In practice in most states and districts and through the federal No Child Left Behind Act, accountability has taken the form of using results from standardized tests to trigger labels, sanctions, rewards or interventions for districts, schools, educators or students.
We believe this approach has been both insufficient and has had undesirable side effects. We do not therefore reject accountability, but rather propose a different approach to accountability: authentic accountability. We offer this set of principles for guiding the reconstruction of accountability systems to better meet the needs of education and to avoid the dangers often associated with current accountability systems.
To be accountable or to give an accounting poses the questions: - accountable to what ends?
- accountable for what?
- accountable to whom? and
- accountable by what means?
These principles address each question in turn.
A. Accountable to What Ends?
The key purposes of accountability are to inform the public B to give an accounting B of the status of the school or system; to provide information that can be used to improve education; to ensure equity within the system; to foster democracy; and to ensure that participants in the system carry out their responsibilities well.
As it is widely recognized that much about schools, particularly those serving low-income and minority-group children, must be improved, we place improvement and equity as fundamental purposes of accountability. The education of our children is also widely understood as foundational to democracy. Accountability procedures should strengthen, not undermine participatory democracy. The public should be informed about these and other significant aspects of schooling. All the principles should be used to help guide participants in the system to doing their work responsibly and well.
We thus conclude these principles for the purposes of accountability:
1. Improvement. Schools and districts must be accountable for implementing procedures for using information to guide decision-making by educators, students, parents and the community to improve the quality of schools and learning. The most fundamental characteristic of good schools is good teaching. If accountability is to induce improvement, then professional development B particularly time for teachers to collaborate B must be a regular part of teachers= paid work and must be aimed toward improving practice and creating a community of learners.
2. Equity. Education systems must contribute to closing the race and class achievement gaps and to helping overcome the consequences of poverty and racism. The gaps must be closed on the significant academic, personal and social outcomes that society wants for its children B not only on standardized tests B and on the social and school indicators that prefigure and shape school achievement. Children who need more should be provided with more: equity does not mean the same for all, it means that all children receive what they need to fully develop.
3. Democracy. Participatory democracy serves as a vehicle for school accountability and improvement, and for strengthening the community. Accountability systems therefore must include structures that promote the informed involvement of key actors in the education system: parents, students, educators, and members of the local community first of all. To further strengthen democracy, government and education systems should be accountable for promoting, expanding and strengthening schooling that is integrated by race and class.
4. Informing the public. The public deserves substantive and accurate information about the functioning, successes and problems of public education, focusing on the various aspects of schooling that are of major concern to the public.
5. Responsible practice. As education involves complex systems, participants in public education are varied in their interests and roles. Each major sector of the system should be provided the means to perform well, evidence should be gathered on how well they are performing, and the evidence should be used to help participants carry out and improve their work.
B. Accountable for What?
Accountability must be based on a shared vision and goals for education and schools, on agreement about what schools should be and do. The larger community must participate in setting the basic goals and purposes of the educational system and evaluating how well they have been met. Because a shared vision may not be present, processes must be established to enable communities to agree on common ground or to allow differences to co-exist. To meet this purpose, we propose the following five principles:
1. Priorities. The shared vision should prioritize what is most important in academic and other formal learning, the physical and emotional well-being of students, the social environment of the school, and how well schools prepare students to be active participants in a democracy, lifelong learners, and able to continue their education and make a good living. Assessment information used in accountability must focus on those areas deemed most important, not those areas that are easiest to measure with inexpensive tools, such as standardized tests, though such tools may be useful in the accountability process.
2. Resources. Government must be held accountable for providing education systems, including schools and pre-schools, with adequate resources to meet agreed-upon priorities. This includes the money to hire good teachers and ensure continuing professional development, provide small classes, books, technology and supplies, in a comfortable, clean and hospitable environment, in order to ensure that all children receive an adequate and equitable opportunity to learn. Resources for other policies and programs known to positively contribute to important outcomes, such as pre-school or health care, must also be provided. Schools and districts should be accountable for using their resources fairly and effectively.
3. Student learning. Education systems should be accountable for ensuring all students learn those things society agrees all should learn (which could be expressed as formal standards), and for enabling all students to pursue areas of individual interest and talent. Assessments of academic, vocational or other formal learning must promote, measure and provide useful feedback and reporting on deep, strong learning rather than primarily procedural, factual or surface learning. They must include all important content areas of learning and be congruent with current knowledge about how students learn.
4. Student well-being. Students are happier and achieve more in environments that are hospitable and welcoming and where students feel empowered, challenged, motivated and supported.
Holding schools accountable for establishing supportive and caring learning environments for all children and for ensuring students= physical and emotional well-being must rely on evidence that illuminates the most important aspects.
5. Inclusion. The progress and well being of all students must be accounted for. Accountability data of all sorts should be broken out by major demographic categories. Inclusion also implies respect for the diverse experiences and cultural backgrounds of students and communities.
C. Accountable to Whom
Accountability must be mutual and reciprocal. Accountability systems require appropriate roles for the key participant sectors and structures within which to carry out the appropriate responsibilities.
1. Higher levels of government authority are responsible for ensuring adequate provision and fair use of resources so as to provide equity of opportunities; safeguarding civil and human rights to ensure fair treatment; monitoring local systems; analyzing research and practice to better determine what works best in what circumstances; disseminating knowledge; providing additional support as needed; and for intervening in localities when necessary.
States can define, with wide participation, core areas for learning (though specific standards as well as curriculum and instruction can be left to districts and schools); and intervene when localities are unable to provide a high-quality education even when they have reasonable resources. Governments are accountable for conducting business with transparency and substantial educator, parent and community input.
2. Local schools and districts and their communities must be the primary authorities in the accountability process. Schools are first of all accountable to their students, the parents and the local community. Local accountability involves active participation and shared power among key actors. Schools and districts also are responsible to the general public and the state.
D. Accountable by what means
The means used to implement accountability can support or undermine the underlying accountability goals and overall school quality. The general trend has been to combine narrow measures with high stakes, thereby damaging schools= capacity to meet the larger goals sought by the public and often undermining the quality of education.
To ensure that accountability methods support full accountability goals, we propose the following principles:
1. Use multiple forms of evidence. Accountability requires the use of multiple forms of qualitative and quantitative evidence from both academic and non-academic areas to arrive at judgments as to where a student, school, district or the state is doing well and where not, and to provide a basis for making improvements. All students must be assessed and evaluated with a range of appropriate tools and methods, with no student evaluated by means that are inappropriate to that student. No important academic decision about a student, a teacher, an administrator, a school or a district should be made solely on one type of evidence, such as standardized test scores. (Scores from several standardized tests do not constitute multiple forms of evidence.)
2. Use predictive and formative school and system indicators. Education systems must assess the key factors that contribute to the attainment of rich outcomes. These factors include whether schools and districts are using policies and programs that support strong outcomes; whether they are using information in a reasonable way to improve teaching, learning and school quality; and whether the state and federal governments are providing positive support in these areas. Out-of-school indicators such as health care, housing, nutrition, and availability of high-quality pre-school, also should be assessed and evaluated. Systems also should identify and analyze in-school factors that inhibit high achievement or harm school quality; these could include tracking and grouping practices, retention and promotion policies, and social and cultural practices and expectations.
3. Use formative student assessment. Research has strongly demonstrated that skilled use of giving feedback to students (Aformative assessment@) is among the most powerful means teachers have for improving learning outcomes. For assessment to be most helpful to students, it must be comprehensive and regular enough to provide fine-grained useful information about each student to guide further instruction, must be understood and used by the student, and the student should be actively involved in the assessment and evaluation process. Most assessment therefore must be classroom-based and used by well-prepared teachers. Schools and districts must ensure that all teachers are skilled users of formative assessments. Standardized exams should supplement, not supplant or overpower, classroom assessment. Because teachers must use information to improve instruction, it would be more efficient to ensure high-quality assessment practices by teachers than to focus on improving standardized testing to be used by under-prepared teachers.
4) Use interventions sparingly and carefully. Interventions from higher levels of government must focus on providing useful assistance and only as a last resort include harsher measures. Intervention should focus on factors that can produce powerful improvement, such as rich professional development, strong parent involvement, and high quality classroom assessment.
If a school or district has taken steps that plausibly will lead to desired improvement, it must be allowed time for those changes to take effect. During that time, improvement efforts must be monitored using a range of evidence to determine if implementation of reasonable changes is proceeding well and schools are able to use information to effectively adjust their improvement efforts.
The little research that exists suggests that there is no significant evidence of effectiveness for sanctions such as removing the principal and key staff, privatizing school or system management, making the school a charter school, or the having the state run the school or district. This indicates that firing teachers or changing governance are not proven paths to meaningful improvement. Such sanctions therefore should be taken as a last resort, with sufficient support and resources to increase the likelihood of success, and with careful monitoring of progress. Such strong interventions should be consistent with these principles.