10/01/2014 09:44 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Test-Based Accountability, Inspectors, and Evidence


Recently, Marc Tucker of the National Center for Education and the Economy wrote a thoughtful critique of education policy in the U.S., questioning the heavy reliance on test-based accountability and suggesting that the U.S. adopt a system like those used in most of our peer countries, with less frequent and less consequential testing and a reliance on inspectors to visit all schools, especially those lagging on national measures. In the New York Times, Joe Nocera heaped praise on Tucker's analysis.

Personally, I agree with Tucker's (and Nocera's) enthusiasm for an assessment and accountability system that uses testing in a more thoughtful, less draconian way. There is certainly little evidence to support test-based accountability with substantial consequences for schools and teachers as it is being used today. I'd also be glad to see U.S. schools try the kinds of independent school inspectors used in most of our peer countries.

However, as I've noted in earlier blogs, it's fun to consider what other countries do, but there are too many factors involved to infer that adopting the policies of other countries will work here. I work part-time in England, which uses exactly the policies Tucker espouses. Its accountability measures are used only at the end of primary school (6th grade) and secondary school (11th). An independent and respected corps of inspectors visits schools, making more frequent visits when schools' scores are low or declining. All well and good, but England's PISA scores are nearly identical to ours. England's gentler accountability policies make teaching and school leadership less unpleasant than it is here, and the hysteria and pressure-induced cheating often seen here are unknown in England, so their policies may be better in many ways. But the different U.S. policies are not the main cause of the modest rankings of U.S. students.

As another example, consider Canada. Provinces vary, but no Canadian school system tests as often as we do. However, they do not have inspectors, and Canada always scores well above both the U.S. and England. So, should we emulate nearby Canada rather than faraway Finland or Shanghai? Perhaps, but before getting too excited about our neighbor to the north, it's important to note that the U.S. states nearest to Canada, such as Massachusetts, Minnesota, and Washington, are among the highest U.S. achievers. Is Canada's success due to policies or demography?

My point is just that while international comparisons might suggest policies or practices worth piloting and evaluating in the U.S., the main focus should be on evaluations of policies, practices, and programs within the U.S. If inspectors, for example, seem like a good idea, let's try them in U.S. schools, randomly assigning some schools to receive inspectors and some not.

We can all make our best guesses about what might work to improve U.S. schools, but let's put our guesses to the test.