THE BLOG
07/07/2015 12:36 pm ET | Updated Jul 06, 2016

Senate's ESEA Challenge: Strengthen Accountability to Help Schools Improve, Not Perpetuate Test-driven Accountability

If we've learned anything from the failure of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), it should be that NCLB's accountability strategy -- pressuring schools to continuously raise standardized test scores -- doesn't work. NCLB's accountability system is based on false premises has grossly failed to achieve its purposes of raising virtually all students to academic proficiency and closing the achievement gap, caused multiple serious harms, and resulted in even lower academic improvement rates than before NCLB.

Chairman Lamar Alexander, Ranking Member Patty Murray and the Senate education committee members seemed to recognize this in their unanimously approved April bill reauthorizing the current Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA)/NCLB: the "Every Child Achieves Act of 2015" (ECA), S. 1177. They wisely determined to replace NCLB's test-driven accountability system that mandates intervening in all Title I schools failing to satisfy test score goals for any student subgroup for two consecutive years.

Yet, as the full Senate debates the bill this week, the Congressional Tri-Caucus asks it, in effect, to reinstate a test-driven accountability mandate. Specifically, the Caucus seeks a mandate that districts/States intervene in all schools in which "the same student subgroup misses a state-set [testing] goal for two or more consecutive years[.]" "Student subgroup" evidently refers to each of four categories of students: low income, racial/ethnic minorities, disabled and English language learners. See ECA 1111(b)(3)(A).

The Caucus's request should be rejected. If continuously raising standardized test scores were made the sole criterion for schools avoiding being labelled in "need of intervention and support" and subjected to intervention, schools would continue to feel under pressure to make raising test scores their overriding objective. (That S. 1177 replaces NCLB's escalating sanctions with more helpful forms of intervention would not change the underlying reality that schools would want to avoid being treated as failing and the only way to do that would be to continuously raise test scores.) This would profoundly distract attention from doing what low-achieving schools need to concentrate on now: implementing the systemic changes that research and experience show low-achieving schools commonly do to substantially improve themselves.

Instead, the committee has already developed an accountability system that soundly puts the emphasis of accountability on helping schools improve. It has at least three components. First, S. 1177 recognizes that State test scores by themselves are inadequate to differentiate among schools and identify those that most need "intervention and support." Rather, it provides a richer and more reliable multi-factor system. ECA, 1114(a)(1)(A), 1111(b)(3)(B)(iii).

Specific factors which States may consider for differentiating among schools include rates of student attendance, suspension and expulsion, teacher satisfaction and absence, safety and climate. ECA, 1111(b)(3)(B)(ii)(IV). This encourages schools to focus on improving their conditions and reduces pressure on them to concentrate on raising standardized test scores as an end in itself. Test scores must still be considered as a "substantial factor." ECA, 1111(b)(3)(B)(iii)(II).

Second, S. 1177 focuses schools in need of intervention and support on making improvements in the very areas supported by research and experience. These include leadership, instruction, curriculum, school climate, parent and community engagement and wrap-around services. ECA, 1114(b)(1)(D).

Third, S. 1177 directly holds districts accountable for helping schools improve by requiring annual public reporting for every public school of information on indicators of: school quality, climate, safety, discipline, distribution of inexperienced teachers and principals, teacher retention rates, per pupil expenditures, and other school-related factors relevant to improving schools. ECA, 1111(d)(2)(c)(i) with 1111(d)(1)(C).

Thus, the committee recognizes that, if we are to dramatically improve learning for disadvantaged students, Congress needs to focus accountability on helping schools improve. If the schools improve, students will learn more and the test scores will take care of themselves.

At the same time, the Caucus makes a powerful point that S. 1177 is too weak because it gives States/districts total discretion to determine what portion of Title I schools they will assist with intervention and support. Potentially, they might identify virtually no schools, regardless of how poor the conditions and learning were.

To strengthen accountability, the Senate should build on the committee's work by specifying some minimum percentage of Title I schools, e.g. 5%, which must be identified as "in need of intervention and support." This would guarantee at least those schools would benefit from S. 1177's informed approach to improving the most ineffective schools.

The nation is at the crossroads in education policy. The emphasis now needs to be on having low-achieving schools make the systemic changes that enable them to improve, not relentlessly pressuring them to raise State test scores. The Senate should reject the Caucus's test-driven accountability approach. It should support its education committee's emphasis on accountability to help Title I schools improve, while ensuring supportive intervention for a specified portion.