Sunday, June 28, 2009

Bolder, Broader Accountability?

Thoughtful commentary on common standards from


The announcement last month about common standards and the work undertaken by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers seems to have captured the attention of most in the education community.  For those entering their first rodeo, they are worried about how these new standards will be applied and are worried about how they will be applied next year, even before the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

Those who have done this dance enough times know that the work is only just beginning.  The current common standard focus on high school exit expectations will have be walked back to first grade or kindergarten, providing common standards for the full K-12 effort.  With those standards, we'll also have to build the assessments that go with it, how we measure both what is being taught and what is being learned in the classroom.

One of the top concerns about common standards is that the current framework seems focused exclusively on reading and math skills, much as NCLB's AYP provisions were.  We assume that science will be added.  We hope to fold in social studies and other academic subjects.  And the recent release of the arts NAEP last week gives us hope that there is a chance that we will truly gage student proficiency on all of the issues and topics addressed during the school year.

Adding to this discussion is a new report out today from A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.  BBA's approach is a simple one.  School improvement cannot be measured by test scores alone.  There are additional quantitative measures, as well as a number of qualitative pieces, that should be factored into current efforts to improve the schools and support our students.  (Full disclosure, my company has been providing counsel to BBA and its leadership on these issues.)

The full BBA Accountability Report can be found here.  But I'll recap the highlights:

When it comes to accountability, BBA calls on the federal government to:

* Collect state-level data -- from an expanded NAEP or from other national surveys -- on a broad range of academic subjects, as well as on the arts, student work habits, physical health and fitness, mental health, citizenship habits, and other appropriate behaviors that will enable students to achieve success in a pluralistic society and complex global economy.

* Improve the disaggregation of NAEP and other survey data, where appropriate, to include immigrant generation, parent education, and national origin.

* Maintain NAEP's low-stakes character to preserve its validity as an indicator of relative state performance, barring its use as an individual-level test for accountability purposes

* Require states to develop accountability systems that rely upon scores on states' own academic tests and other key educational, health, and behavioral indicators, along with approved inspection
systems to evaluate school quality.

And for BBA, it falls to the states to:

* Improve the quality of state assessment, particularly in reading and math, so that assessment results can plan an appropriate role in school evaluation.

* provide for the inspection of districts and schools to ensure that contributions to satisfactory student performance in academic subject areas, as well as in the arts, citizenship, physical fitness and mental and physical health, work, and other behavioral skills that will enable them to achieve success in a pluralistic society and complex global economy.Provide for the inspection of districts and schools to ensure that appropriate resources and practices, likely to produce satisfactory student achievement, are being followed and promoted.

* Intervene for the purpose of improving schools and district performance where it is unsatisfactory.

There are few that are going to feel lukewarm or ambivalent about BBA and its recommendations.  EIther you've drunk the Kool-aid or you are a true nay-sayer/doomsdayer.

True believers are going to embrace this as the fix to what is perceived as a severely flawed accountability system in NCLB, a model that only looks at reading and math, a model that only looks at grades 3-8, a model that fails to account for other academic subjects, other social developments, and other factors that impact the potential and success of the student and the school.  The broader, more comprehensive approach to assessment gets us closer to the multiple measures many states were pursuing before AYP became a primary word in their vocabulary.

Others will absolutely hate the approach.  They will fear that BBA is looking to weaken current accountability models, and are claiming that adequate assessment of math and reading proficiency should no longer be a priority.  It "softens" our current measurement efforts.  It places the qualitative over the quantitative.  And it turns back the accountability clock to when it was every state for itself, with each jurisdiction offering up some version of the good, the bad, and the ugly.  it seeks to deal a setback to one of the real successes of the NCLB era.

Will these recommendations become the centerpiece of ESEA reauthorization, either this year or sometime in the next decade?  Probably not.  But by throwing a spotlight on accountability at this stage of the game, BBA begins a very important debate when it comes to reauthorization.  

How do we effectively measure school improvement?  

What are the inputs and the outcomes we should be focused on?  

How do we define success?  

How do we measure success?  

How do we capture the full picture, knowing that curricular changes alone cannot get us to the intended destination?  

How do we take issues like 21st century skills and STEM and figure out how to effectively layer them into the common standards and the assessments that will come along with those standards?  

How do we ensure that all parties, from the classroom up and the feds down, are actually being held accountable for student learning and student achievement?  

All are important debates we must have now, if a reauthorized ESEA is indeed an improvement over the current.

Debate is a good thing.  Discussion is a good thing.  Even disagreement is a good thing when it comes to school improvement.  We need choices and different ideas.  We need devil's advocates and loyal soldiers.  We need to seriously consider our choices (as well as weigh what has worked and what has not in the past) if we are to put real, lasting, meaningful improvement in place.  So if BBA is lighting the match to start some of these debates, we are better for it.

And for those who think that these accountability recommendations won't hold any water with the Obama Administration and EdSec Arne Duncan, take a look at the following video clips.  Both candidate Obama's and President Obama's rhetoric seem far more like that of a true believer than a nay sayer.  This may have more legs to it than it originally appears.  

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