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Aurora Institute

Tackling Accountability as Continuous Improvement in Policy: Next Generation Accountability Models

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Dale Frost, Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong, Susan Patrick

Issues: State Policy, Redesign Accountability Systems for Continuous Improvement


To present, the idea of accountability in American education has been synonymous with end-of-year, statewide, summative tests that are tied to high stakes outcomes for teachers and schools. No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) intent was to increase equity. The strategy NCLB employed was to require states to test all students in grades 3 through 8 and once in high school in math and reading/language arts, and report the percentage of students who were proficient on grade level standards. These data were the main focus of NCLB’s accountability model. Schools were required to make “Adequate Yearly Progress” (AYP) toward a goal of 100 percent proficiency (in every subject and subgroup) by 2014. Schools were subject to increasingly punitive sanctions for each year that they did not make AYP. The effect of NCLB’s strategy to increase equity in education through a singular focus on grade-level proficiency tests has been a conflation of equity with the same test for the same age student to measure grade-level proficiency on reading and math. In the process of developing the new federal education policy, the Every Student Succeeds Act, conversations about “guard rails” in accountability for equity were centered on ensuring all students were being tested using the same end-of-year, single, summative test containing only items from a student’s assigned grade level based on age.

Policymakers should consider engaging stakeholders to think through what communities and the state need in terms of a “Profile of a Graduate” and what that means for next generation accountability systems to ensure students are being prepared for success in postsecondary education, the workforce, and civic life.

10 Considerations for Policymakers on Redesigning Next Gen Accountability Models

There are a number of important considerations that policymakers might keep in mind as they think long term about accountability redesign. These include:

  1. Engaging diverse local and state stakeholders to redefine success and ensure that the goals, measures, and systems are all working together to support each student’s success;
  2. Identifying how each level of the system can keep “skin in the game” so that accountability is shared and does not fall disproportionately on the shoulders of any one stakeholder group;
  3. Thinking about school quality reviews and interventions as part of a process of continuous improvement;
  4. Thinking about systems as dynamic and responsive to stakeholders. Under ESSA, states can request to amend their accountability plans at any time. As states learn what works, or doesn’t work, they may make changes in the spirit of innovations for equity and continuous improvement.
  5. Providing timely information to the right stakeholders, at the right levels, at the right time, and recognizing that the same data can be aggregated or disaggregated to meet different needs;
  6. Considering how to present multiple measures of student learning and school quality with advanced data visualization, to provide families with rich, easy to understand information;
  7. Embedding professional learning into quality improvement processes;
  8. Considering the inputs, processes, and outcomes that reflect a relentless and multi-faceted pursuit of equity for students;
  9. In considering student learning outcomes, thinking differently about the concepts of “proficiency” and “growth” and how we can monitor student learning in real-time, so that educators can intervene quickly to fill in gaps or meet other needs as they arise; and,
  10. Investing in the requisite educator and leader capacity.

We need to move from thinking about measuring one point of proficiency at one point in time, to understanding the transparency of data with student proficiency every day as well as each student’s growth over time. We need more advanced quality assurance, evaluation and assessment approaches to provide ongoing transparency of student progress. With better data, data literacy, and the requisite investments in educator capacity, we could evaluate proficiency, achievement gaps, rate of progress and also understand growth based on individual student growth over time; we could also look across cohorts of students and disaggregate data by sub-group to ensure equity and transparency with a depth not possible today.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), states are no longer required to “rank and punish” schools on a single, end-of-year summative determination of grade-level proficiency. Rather, states may now use multiple measures of academic achievement, graduation, and performance of individual student subgroups, as well as a measure of school quality, to identify schools for improvement. (For more information, see Moving Beyond Single Rating Systems: Alternative State Accountability Frameworks to Promote Continuous Improvement).

States may use student growth, extended-year cohort graduation rates and additional metrics of their choosing. With multiple measures, the opportunity is there for states to redesign accountability around a broader definition of student success. After all, while the abilities to read and do math are important, students will need to be equipped with other skills, such as critical thinking, communication and collaboration, to be successful after high school.

Policymakers in other states could consider the example of Vermont, which has created an accountability system designed to foster continuous improvement, both for school systems and for student learning. What most distinguishes Vermont is that every school has been identified for improvement. This removes the “black eye” of the improvement label, and puts each school and district in a mindset of continuous improvement. The state’s Education Quality Standards require schools to submit Continuous Improvement Plans that outline the school’s accomplishments, progress, goals and strategies for improvement. All Continuous Improvement Plans are reviewed by the Vermont Agency of Education staff. However, the in-person monitoring visits are carried out by Vermont educators in a peer-review process. With peers providing feedback to the schools on their performance, the recommendations for improvement become more meaningful and feel lower-stakes. Interventions are required for schools not meeting quality standards; since all schools are reviewed and continuous improvement is the goal for every school, interventions become more differentiated based on each one’s characteristics and capacity needs.

Learn more about next generation accountability systems in our report, Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education.

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