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Aurora Institute

Understanding How U.S. K-12 Accountability and Assessments are Too Often Conflated: What Policymakers Need to Know to Advance Student-Centered Learning Policies

Education Domain Blog

Authors: Maria Worthen, Natalie Truong, Susan Patrick

Issues: Federal Policy, Create Space to Pilot Systems of Assessments, State Policy, Build Balanced Systems of Assessments


Assessment is integral to the process of teaching and learning. Teachers should be constantly checking for their students’ understanding in formal and informal ways. They are checking for understanding with formative assessment, tracking progress with interim assessment, and checking mastery of standards with summative assessment. And yet, “assessment” today in the United States is often used as a shorthand term for, or conflated to mean, “statewide accountability test.”

In redesigning systems of assessments, state policymakers should consider what is needed to make assessment more meaningful and integrally-linked to student learning. This will require creating a balanced system of assessment to support individual student learning and achievement outcomes that matter.

Distinguishing Assessment from Accountability in K-12 Education Systems

It is common today in U.S. education policy to see the terms assessment and accountability used interchangeably. To be clear, though intricately linked to each other in today’s policy context, accountability and assessment are two separate concepts.

Referring to assessment and accountability interchangeably unfortunately conflates a broad set of tools that generate information about student learning (assessments) with policy initiatives designed to incent desired behaviors, or disincent undesired behaviors in order to reach specific goals (accountability). Of course, accountability and assessment are linked concepts, to the extent that assessment provides data that can be used for accountability. However, problems arise when the goals in the accountability system are too narrowly defined and the incentives or disincentives are too limiting or too punitive.

No Child Left Behind tied a single assessment (end of year summative state tests) to multiple high stakes (identifying schools for intervention, diverting their federal funds into proscribed uses, and, with the changes brought about under the Elementary and Secondary Education Act waivers and Race to the Top, teacher evaluations sometimes used to make human resources decisions). So, it is understandable why accountability and assessment get confused with each other. A critical shift in thinking needs to happen around accountability and assessment, starting with accountability systems that move the focus from performance on a single test, to multiple measures aligned with a profile of a graduate, and accountability that balances incentives and disincentives with supports.

Reflecting on where we are in the United States, if assessment is conflated with accountability today, it is because our policies have been structured to do just that. Counter to some of the narratives that are dominating policy conversations today, assessment and learning need not be at odds with each other. Policy can and should help to drive coherence of K-12 education systems by ensuring that assessment, teaching, and learning are complementary and supportive of one another.

Balanced Systems of Assessments

To start, policymakers could begin to think about assessment in terms of systems of assessments that serve multiple purposes for multiple stakeholders, rather than in terms of a single assessment that is designed to be used solely for accountability and has the end result of driving teaching and learning toward limited outcomes.

Chattergoon and Marion (2016) argue that as states redesign their approaches to assessment, they should pursue balanced systems of assessments that meet the following three criteria:

  • Coherent systems: “The assessments in a system must be compatible with the models of how students learn content and skills over time;” and “curriculum, instruction, and assessment must be aligned to ensure that the entire system is working toward a common set of learning goals;”
  • A well-articulated theory of action that articulates how each part of the system relates to the others. In other words, what purpose does the system as a whole serve, what different needs does it meet for different stakeholders, and how does it meet them? “A set of assessments, even if they cohere, will not fulfill the intended purposes if the information never reaches the intended user;” and,
  • Assessment efficiency means that systems are providing stakeholders with the full range of information that it is intended to provide. “For example, if a state wants to give educators information to help them adjust instruction, its assessments must be tied to the curriculum that is being used. These assessments should in turn yield timely, detailed information about the knowledge and skills being assessed at the local level.”

What does this look like in practice? The policy constraints under No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal K-12 education law that predated the Every Student Succeeds Act of 2015 (ESSA), as well as the local control of curriculum in most states, have made it challenging for states to produce comprehensive statewide models for balanced systems of assessments. States could take a leadership role working with districts and schools to set conditions for more balanced systems of assessments, with multiple measures, aligned to student-centered learning, to identify what specific data the state needs for accountability.

There are states beginning to move in this direction and further along with this work in new systems of assessments, such as in the Assessment for Learning project, that provide examples of pathways in state policy and systems “advancing our understanding of assessments’ essential roles in the learning process, as learning models become more personalized, less cohort-restricted, more competency-based, and student-centered.”

Learn more about systems of assessments and accountability in the paper Fit for Purpose: Taking the Long View on Systems Change and Policy to Support Competency Education.

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