The adoption by most states of new academic standards has marked a shift in education policy from a narrowly focused concept of school achievement to a more ambitious one that aims for college and career readiness for all students. A new report argues that in order for these goals to be realized, a more comprehensive and balanced system of accountability is necessary. Such a system should rest on three pillars — a focus on meaningful learning, adequate resources, and professional capacity — and should be driven by processes for continuous evaluation and improvement.
“For more than a decade, the definition of 'accountability' in education has manifested largely in the form of consequences to schools that do not meet annual targets for growth on yearly state tests. This definition has resulted in a narrowing of the curriculum and a widening of the opportunity gap,” said Linda Darling-Hammond, the report's co-author and Stanford University Charles E. Ducommun Professor of Education. "A powerful accountability system must offer a rich and well-taught curriculum to all students, raising expectations not only for individual schools but for the functioning of the system as a whole."
The report, Accountability for College andCareer Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, draws on research, actual practice of states and nations, and input from leading policymakers, researchers, administrators, and practitioners (see list of advisors, below) to develop a vision of this new accountability, which is portrayed in an imagined “51st state.” The report was released jointly by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education at Stanford University and the National Center for Innovation in Education (NCIE) at the University of Kentucky. It was authored by Darling-Hammond, NCIE Executive Director Gene Wilhoit, and NCIE staff member, Linda Pittenger.
“We propose these ideas as a step forward that challenges our prior assumptions about how one acquires knowledge and skills and invites practitioners to expand our vision of what is possible. It will take time and vigorous debate for states to develop accountability policies that fit their specific contexts and cultures,” Wilhoit said. "But if the United States is to keep its promise to provide a high-quality education for each and every child, it is urgent that a very purposeful national discussion be underway so that we can generate a system that is truly accountable to students and parents. No system should be frozen in time."
To ensure the effectiveness of a new accountability system, the report recommends more thoughtful assessments that can better inform teaching, more comprehensive initiatives to support educators’ knowledge and skills, and more equitable resources for schools, with greater accountability for how these resources are allocated to ensure the success of all students. The report also outlines systems of multiple indicators, School Quality Reviews, and school improvement strategies that can support continuous evaluation and improvement. To evaluate student learning, educator performance, and school performance, states, districts and schools should use rich sources of data and expert judgment. Rather than mete out formulaic sanctions, interventions should design strategic changes that protect students’ rights to a high-quality education and promote system improvement.
The report draws from research and current practices that show potential for producing more robust and effective accountability systems. Among them, New Hampshire’s system of state and local performance assessments; New York’s Performance Standards Consortium; California’s Envision Schools and Linked Learning schools and its Local Control Funding Formula; and the School Quality Review approaches being used by Kentucky, New York, North Carolina, and Rhode Island. Drawing off of these rich data and examples, the report recommends the following critical elements be put in place:
• Sophisticated curriculum and assessments that evaluate deep understanding of content, critical and creative thinking, problem solving, multiple modes of communication, and uses of new technologies.
• Adequate and equitably distributed resources ensuring students access to the quality of teaching, materials, and technology they need to engage the new standards productively, and which address the additional needs of students who live in poverty, are new English learners, or who have other special educational needs.
• Capacity-building for schools and educators that enables the delivery of more challenging content to an increasingly diverse group of students, including developing pedagogies for deeper learning, personalizing instruction, and creating school designs that allow students to learn and apply their knowledge in ways that take advantage of new technologies and link to the world beyond traditional school walls.
• Evaluation and improvement models that foster the collaborative changes needed to transform schools from the industrial model of the past to innovative learning systems for the future. These models must enable thoughtful risk-taking informed by continuous evaluation using multiple measures to inform improvement. They should be transparent, reciprocal, focused on capacity-building, and adapted to local conditions.