Counting on Accountability

School level test scores, graduation rates, annual student achievement growth measures, district progress measurements, and SAT results are but some of the modern indicators used to measure public school performance. Increasingly, public school districts are required to administer and report these statistical data in order to secure funding, justify existence, maintain budget allocations, and acquire confidence and support from the taxpaying public. While educators lament these facts and often struggle to find ways and means of curbing this trend, the general public (especially the taxpayers) are firmly supportive of the accountability measures.

Peterson and West
(2003) note that Americans began their love affair with accountability when the military used tests measure soldier’s abilities and intelligence. These tests later bloomed into the SAT (Scholastic Aptitude Test). Thus, the SAT was our first academic testing tool used to measure education levels and, indirectly, the educational institutions from whence the test takers were schooled. Peterson and West go on to lift the veil of how school accountability came to light. It began in the 1960s when the national SAT average began to decline. The general public was alarmed and a national education reform movement began. But because the SAT was taken primarily by selective students, the Education Commission of the States developed the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) in the 1960s. The test was administered, randomly, to students aged nine, thirteen, and seventeen. The test was not designed to be an accountability tool, but according to Peterson and West, “…even though it was designed so as to not inform anyone about how any individual schools were doing, NAEP, ironically, would prove to be a key mechanism in hastening the accountability movement forward”.

As the 1980s dawned, the accountability movement gained greater ground. It was Terrel H. Bell’s commission that authored A Nation At Risk in 1984. Bell’s report predicted dire consequences for children and the nation if the American education system did not begin serious reform measures. Within a few short years, the federal Department of Education became a powerful and guiding force. States were ramping up their student achievement measurements, companies were designing and selling standardized tests, and talks of national curricula and testing were beginning. It was a nice marriage of education and business cloaked in the robe of learning, success, patriotism, and accountability.

Subsequently, today public schools are burdened by measurement tools. States are burdened with funding issues directly related to testing costs and accountability measures. Students are burdened by curricula that seeks not mainly to educate, but to ensure their success on standardized tests. Administrators and teachers are burdened with proving their worth and relevance – through the measures and results of timed tests.

A New Jersey student will be subject to the following standardized tests between prior to earning a high school diploma:

  • The New Jersey ASK 3
  • The New Jersey ASK 4
  • The New Jersey ASK 5
  • The New Jersey ASK 6
  • The New Jersey ASK 7
  • The New Jersey ASK 8
  • The New Jersey Algebra I End of Course Exam
  • The New Jersey Biology End of Course Exam
  • The New Jersey High School Proficiency Assessment
  • The College Board’s PSAT
  • The College Board’s SAT

For more aggressive and ambitious students, the list can grow to include a number of the College Board’s AP exams. All of these tests are used as indicator’s of a school’s student achievement. But unlike the NAEP’s original intentions, the federal and state government make it very clear that these tests will be used to measure and judge a public school and a district.

Recently, another reform movement (as a result of the flood of localized accountability) has begun – the national standards movement. The Common Core Standards Initiative has gained much press lately. It is a joint reform effort by the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers to bring states together under a united umbrella of reading, writing, and math standards for grades K-12. According to the CCSI, “These standards will be research and evidence-based, internationally benchmarked, aligned with college and work expectations and include rigorous content and skills”. States opting in to the initiative will, undoubtedly, develop new testing – or common state tests – to measure the standards’ implementation, thus ensuring that accountability measures remain.

I have to be honest… for all the criticism, anguish, and discomfort that accountability has brought to public education, it is undeniable that some of the ramifications have been positive. Federal and state measurement and judgement tools have forced many districts and schools to examine, analyze, and often rebuild their methods of teaching, their systems of thinking, their mechanisms of assessing, and their means of funding.

It is also true, however, that the business of education has become the business of education; test developers, inter-state commissions, and reform lobbyists (both at the state and federal level) all now have a much more powerful voice in the conversation of learning. Thus, “accountability” now means much more than just seeing how the students are doing. It means counting.

Author: Michael Parent, Ed.D

Father, husband, school administrator in NJ. "Education cures poverty".

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