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Aurora Institute

Next Gen Accountability: Ohio & Beyond

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Tom Vander Ark

Issue(s): State Policy, Create Pilots and Innovation Zones, Create Enabling Conditions for Competency-Based Education

Originally published July 16, 2014 by Getting Smart.

Ohio Council of Community Schools

Accountability is a gift. We don’t often think of it that way but, done right, it’s a bargain that provides autonomy, resources, and supports in return for a commitment to a set of desired outcomes. That’s how it’s supposed to work with your kids; that’s how it’s supposed to work with schools. At work, accountability provides role and goal clarity like when your boss explains, “Here’s what I expect and how I’ll support you; if you don’t achieve desired results, here’s how the situation will be remedied.”

The University of Toledo and its designee to authorize schools, The Ohio Council of Community Schools (OCCS), hosted a  school leaders conference today to discuss the next generation of accountability. As the Fordham Institute Ohio staff noted, there were a number of changes made to Ohio testing and accountability system in the last session including accountability provisions.  Following is a discussion of how accountability should work–from students to universities–with a few comments about where Ohio is on the curve.

Outcomes. Let’s start with the question, “Accountable for what?”  I’ve come to believe that instilling an innovation mindset is at least as important as teaching basic skills. However, I’m not comfortable with states incorporating grit and curiosity and the like into an accountability framework. Schools and districts should embrace these important career-readiness skills and dispositions and provide regular feedback to students. Networks like Sumit help students track progress in habits of success toward career readiness.

Like Ohio joining Partnership for 21st Century Skills, states should signal the importance of career readiness, but should stick to reading, writing, and math for school accountability. The New England Secondary School Consortium (NESSC) has a great approach to proficiency-based graduation including demonstration of mastery of content, 21st century skills, and dispositions that prepare them for college and careers with a useful data hierarchy (i.e., who tracks what?) from classroom formative to transcript.

Student. Progress should be based on demonstrated proficiency.  Some schools use frequent assessments.  Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority, which runs 12 turnaround schools in Detroit, requires students to present three forms of evidence for each learning target and they have options in how they show what they know (read more about the Buzz platform). Other schools, like those in the Expeditionary Learning network use big projects at the end of the year as demonstrations of mastery. It’s best to use a combination of assessments including challenging performance tasks.  It’s worth including adaptive assessments  in reading and math or using them to cross check performance tasks. The Mooresville Graded School District recently adopted requirements for four large scale multimedia projects in 3rd, 6th, 8th and 12th grade. Beginning next year, students would add products from these projects to their digital portfolio.  (For more competency-based learning see CompetencyWorks, sponsored by iNACOL.)

Ohio’s planned move to end of course exams (starting with the graduating class of 2018)  is a good competency-based approach and will be better aligned with a student’s individual course of study than a big exit test. As Digital Learning Now recommends, the end of course exams should be available on demand or at least frequently scheduled and not just once or twice a year.

Teacher. Like students, teachers should learn using blended strategies and progress based on demonstrated expertise and contribution. Summit Public Schools is the best example of a competency-based educator development system focused on what teachers need to know and be able to do to accelerate student achievement. Demonstrated expertise across seven dimensions of the Summit continuum places teachers on one of four levels (basic, proficient, highly proficient, and expert), which they use to focus their own professional development in order to graduate through the program. The measured dimensions of teaching include Assessment, Content, Curriculum, Instruction, Knowing Learners and Learning, Leadership, and Mentoring. Summit teachers demonstrate.

Schools. States and districts should support a system of differentiated support and earned autonomy. Back in the 90s, Cincinnati was the best urban example where school results determined the relationship with the district–some received directed support, some got light touch support, others earned charter-like autonomy. NCLB was an attempt to create a common nationwide process for school accountability–an effort to ensure that individual students and communities had access to quality learning opportunities.

NCLB provisions focused on the grade level proficiency in part because it of the perception that it could be measured reliably and affordably with standardized tests. However, there has been an over reliance on these heavyweight summative state tests to do many jobs including improving instruction, evaluating teachers, managing student matriculation, and ensuring school quality. In the early early years of data abundance we’re still acting like we live in the age of data poverty–it’s now easy and affordable to use several appropriate measures for discrete needs.

The good news is that next generation assessments, like the PARCC tests to be given in Ohio, are better tests of critical thinking and writing that old tests. The bad news is that these tests reinforce the old age cohort model (i.e., kids progress on birthdays not learning) and the over reliance on a single huge test to do everything. With the shift to personal digital learning that’s just not prudent or necessary anymore. In learning environments where students receive feedback all day every day, we don’t need to spend a week at the end of each year trying to figure out what kids know–there should be thousands of data points from hundreds of learning experiences that give us an accurate picture of achievement.

What we need to get better at–and fast–is measuring individual student growth in comparable ways. With all of the new data available, we should be able to make reliable comparisons of academic growth rates for students in different environments. To make that happen, we need common ways of tagging evidence and probably a common scale (like Lexile and Quantile).

State waivers from NCLB typically incorporate crude estimates of cohort growth using year end standardized tests (as evidenced by the precipotous drop in value-added by online schools this year with a formula change). We need better growth measures for individual students. In fact, we should be able to make some judgements about the contributions to growth from particular learning experiences, units and courses. Better growth measures will improve our ability to measure the contribution of schools serving over-aged under-credited and other historically underserved student groups (something OCCS director Lenny Schafer appreciates having launched two dropout recovery schools).

Ohio plans to add growth measures in grade 4-8 but recently decided to pause accountability for a year. As Chad Aldis notes, “The state board will determine whether schools’ grades on individual components of those report cards, like the value-added and performance indices, will be reported publicly for 2014–15.” That’s probably not a bad idea but, as Chad said, “let’s be sure to limit the moratorium to one year.”

Providers. Full and part time statewide providers of online learning and student services should be authorized and, like all schools, should be held accountable for results (iNACOL has good advice here).

Metric #1 of Digital Learning Now (DLN) framework is “All students must be provided opportunities to access online courses throughout their entire K-12 experience.” While Ohio gets low marks from DLN on eligibility and access, Ohio does have a statewide approval process for full-time online schools, individual online courses, and virtual charter schools. Ohio students have good access to full time online learning but part time access really depends on their district. OSU runs an online learning clearinghouse, ilearnOhio, but usage is district dependent (as opposed to a funding-follows the student model).  Ohio could also consider revising their funding to be provided based on performance or demonstrated mastery rather than upon enrollment. (See Keeping Pace for more about online learning in Ohio.)

System. Schools should be the primary unit of accountability in K-12, but a district or managed charter network with a large percentage of failing schools should be place in probationary status and lose the right to operate schools if the situation is not remedied in a couple years–same for fiscal mismanagement. State takeover districts (e.g., LA RSD, MI EAA, TN ASD) appear to be a better mechanism than state oversight.

Preparation. As described in Preparing Teachers For Deeper Learning, educator preparation should be competency-based. Providers, traditional degree-based and alternative, should be held accountable for outcomes–the ability of program completers to boost student achievement. Like schools, prep programs should operate under a performance contract and providers that don’t produce results should go out of business.

Ohio. Charters were created with accountability at the core–a bargain that with more autonomy came more accountability. “Ohio charter schools are inextricably tied to the state’s accountability system,” said Fordhams’ Aldis, “and there’s no sign of weakening, so charters should expect to be a part of the state accountability system and do all they can to understand it.” Accountability matters and Ohio charters should embrace it.

There are some great charter schools in Ohio and there are some that are not so great. The multiple authorizer system (which I supported) didn’t get off to the best start and a few bad operators threaten public and political support for charters. Chronic failure shouldn’t be tolerated; if schools failing to help students make adequate academic progress can’t be quickly improved, they should be closed.  It is not helpful that an Ohio court ruled yesterday that a charter ordered closed by its authorizers should stay open.

Good authorizing is hard work. In Washington DC, the the charter school board is often more interventionist (e.g., fix this or we won’t renew your charter) than my early conceptions of on/off authorizing, but it’s working. D.C. charter boards benefit from recruiting and training from Charter Board Partners (seemore on why I support them). Authorizers shouldn’t turn into districts and take on a management role but they should demand adherence to the charter and its performance targets. OCCS seems to strike a good balance remaining vigilant about performance while providing technical assistance where requested.

Next. Ohio has multiple authorizers but the state could use specialized authorizers and with unique roles including:

  • Expedited: a short-form application with quick turnaround for operators of two or more high performing schools with potential for multi-campus approvals.
  • Innovation: conditional approval for innovative school models that incorporate novel assessment systems, performance-based progress, unique staffing and compensation, distributed learning, career and technical education, and year round learning.
  • Turnaround: a two step process that would  create a list of certified vendors and match them with turnaround or restart opportunities.
  • Hard to serve: like the innovation pathway, a sheltered pathway for providers committed to serving ELL, disengaged, and special needs students could produce more innovative solutions that adequately gauge contribution to student growth and development.

Other authorizing categories could include online learning, single subject (e.g., world language providers, online speech therapy), and conversion schools. Other authorizers should follow OSSC’s lead and support new models like Nexus blended learning high schools (featured image).

Ohio is to be commended for taking school quality seriously. The charter sector should embrace quality–it’s the only path to equitable funding, access to facilities, and the impact we all seek.


Sydney Schaef, M.BA., M.Ed., is an educator, entrepreneur, and school design consultant. She currently works as a Mastery Learning Designer at reDesign and a design consultant for Building 21. She served at the School District of Philadelphia from 2013-2015 in the Office of New School Models, and prior to that, served as Founder and Executive Director of a 501c3 nonprofit organization that led innovative education and youth development programs in East Africa. Follow Sydney on Twitter at @sydneyschaef.