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Aurora Institute

Accountability Models Designed for Continuous Improvement in Student-Centered Learning Systems

Education Domain Blog

Author(s): Susan Patrick, Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong

Issue(s): State Policy, Redesign Accountability Systems for Continuous Improvement


State and local education systems need to focus on supporting an accountability system that continuously improves to meet the needs of a changing society, economy and student populations.

We need to ensure that accountability systems are “fit for purpose” and support student-centered, competency-based learning. How could we know in real time whether students are making progress on developing the skills they need? How do we know how much progress is being made against the graduation goals and what resources are needed to support their learning? What would it take to create a policy environment that actively encourages growth mindset?

Education systems should reflect families’ and communities’ hopes for student success in school, work, life and society. We imagine an accountability system that empowers stakeholders with the information they need to help students succeed. Systems should provide a complete picture of students’ successes and challenges, providing the right information to the right stakeholders at the right time. We need to bolster communities in and around schools to have more input on student learning and shared ownership of student outcomes. Policy could catalyze the creation of accountability systems built around ensuring all educators and schools can give students the supports they need to master the knowledge and skills necessary for success. State and local education systems need to focus on supporting an accountability system that is iterative to constant improvement and innovation over time to meet the needs of a changing society, economy and student populations. Information from systems of assessments should help to inform and improve school and educator practice and capacity and help to move students toward their next learning goals and beyond.

For the first time in decades, states have the opportunity to engage communities in redefining student success and reimagining the future of education. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) opens up ongoing flexibility for states to design next generation accountability systems that support student learning. States now have a historic opportunity to rethink the purpose, role and design of their accountability systems, reframing them for continuous improvement of student learning toward new, more meaningful definitions of success through data-rich learning environments.

An additional major core concept is the fundamental need to build capacity, trust and professionalism toward a powerful idea of “reciprocal accountability.”

In Bridging the Gap Between Standards and Achievement, Harvard Professor Richard Elmore explains:

“Accountability must be a reciprocal process. For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance. This is the principle of ‘reciprocity of accountability for capacity.’”

A major concept missing in our current approaches to accountability is to consider what it would look like if we had a system designed to build trust and aligned to student-centered learning. Typical state accountability systems are put in place by rigidly grouping students by age cohorts at each grade level to better ensure data quality and comparability against the same test. But the unintended retrograde consequences resulting from this time-based model of accountability may inhibit educators from evidence-based practices for meeting students where they are. If we are not constantly assessing where students are, meeting them where they are, and addressing gaps to provide supports and accelerate learning at high levels, will we ever begin to advance true equity across the system or be able to provide responsive pedagogical approaches?

With reciprocal accountability, accountability does not fall disproportionately on the shoulders of any one stakeholder group and collaboration is prioritized. As a first step, states can begin to engage with diverse stakeholders at different levels of the system, thinking about how reciprocal accountability designs can increase equity and improve outcomes for every student.

The next blog post will provide action steps states can consider to redesign accountability systems for continuous improvement.

Learn more about accountability as continuous improvement from our report, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education.

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