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Dr. Thomas W. Payzant

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The Problem With School Accountability Systems

Posted: 02/ 1/2012 7:00 pm

American school superintendents have it tough these days. High turnover rates in urban school districts are just one indication of the often impossible-to-satisfy demands coming at them from all sides. Misguided approaches to school accountability are a key culprit. High-stakes evaluations based on student test scores put excessive stress on students, set unrealistic expectations for their parents, drive teachers to cut curriculum corners, game the system, or even cheat, and suck the satisfaction out of teaching in and leading schools. Such "accountability" systems isolate superintendents, rather than nurturing the ties to the broader community that are vital to helping our most troubled schools and students succeed.

The problem starts with the mistaken idea that assessment drives results. Viable accountability systems must first build capacity to improve teacher and school leader effectiveness. In seminal school reform research, Anthony Bryk and his colleagues at the Consortium on Chicago School Research liken "turning around" troubled schools to baking a cake -- five key ingredients, including school leadership and quality instruction, must interact to enable real, sustained progress. Using test results to drive teacher and leader effectiveness is akin to poking the raw batter with a toothpick. Which is why it hasn't worked and is not going to.

The problem is exacerbated by our failure to align standards for what students should know with the tests that they take. In the rush to assess and evaluate teachers, we have developed cheap, easy-to-administer tests that tell teachers little and the rest of us less. The tests are thus prone to system-gaming and result in students who may be proficient test-takers but know little about the subject matter or about thinking deeply or creatively. Having effective teachers and visionary leaders adapt strong curricula to each student's unique needs is core to improving both teaching and student outcomes.

Unfortunately, school accountability systems increasingly demand that teachers conduct scripted test prep and employ shallow indicators to assess learning. Despite the new demand for "college and career readiness," and clear indications that the latter, in particular, is heavily reliant on strong social and behavioral skills, we continue to stress basic quantitative metrics in assessments. Accountability systems must use both qualitative and quantitative measures if they are to provide useful information.

Broader measures of student well-being, including knowledge of history, the arts, foreign languages, science, health, and civic engagement would paint a fuller picture of how prepared our students are for the complex world in which they live. It would tell us how good a job not only our schools, but our communities, are doing in instilling in children the skills and values we prioritize. Rethinking how we hold schools, including leaders, accountable would also represent a good first step toward recruiting the strong superintendents we want. It would make it a lot more likely that the information provided helps them make the community connections needed to effect real change, and that the best ones stay on the job long enough to sustain that change.