Our Accountability System Is Flunking Its Test

Public education in our country is amazingly complex and varied. No single idea, policy or solution can begin to address all the challenges in 50 states, 15,000 districts and 90,000 public schools. Add to that complexity the law of unintended consequences, and you begin to see the danger in the emphasis on "accountability" that came into vogue with the passage of President George W. Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law.

The idea that everything will be better if we test students and just "hold teachers accountable" for results is unfair to our students and insulting to those of us who devote our lives to educating kids. Under NCLB, this simplistic idea has taken the form of a high-stakes multiple choice test, which is administered once a year, to students in a couple of subjects (math and language arts) in grades 3-8 and once in high school.

Yet we use these test results to identify struggling students, with no promise to deliver the help and resources they need to succeed. We use these test results to label and punish schools with no NCLB-mandate to provide what they actually need to improve. In the name of "accountability", we also use these test results to evaluate teachers, set their pay, decide whether to retain them, and determine whether they can serve as mentors for colleagues - even though only about 30 percent of teachers actually teach the students and subjects tested in grades 3-8.

We have built an entire so-called "accountability system" on test data derived from tests given on one day of the year. It's like applying for a mortgage loan and the bank only asking for a checkbook balance on a given day. No W2s, no credit report, no debt-to-income ratio. A lender handing over hundreds of thousands of dollars based on just one piece of the loan applicant's financial picture on one day of the year.

If this sounds illogical, it is. It's because of this incongruence that efforts to improve student learning through a test-focused regime aren't working. In the 12 years since NCLB, the "corporate reform" model has failed! There are ways that do improve student success, and they involve better preparation for teachers, better support in the classroom, and ensuring that all students have access to qualified teachers and great schools.

Instead of this so-called "accountability system," we need accountability for the entire system of public education -- including elected officials and policymakers -- for ensuring equity, providing students what they need to be college and career ready, and giving teachers what they need to help kids learn.

When we adjust the lens, we can bring the background into crisp detail, and the necessary elements of genuine accountability become clearer. Fundamentals like school readiness (providing quality preschool and full-day kindergarten), a quality workforce (where is the accountability for policymakers who place untrained and unlicensed teachers in front of our children?), equitable resources, quality conditions of learning, and high standards with aligned curriculum and learning materials.

Accountability for the entire system requires a shift away from the current myopic focus on one test and a willingness to move to a comprehensive overhaul that emphasizes improving professional practice and advancing student learning. This represents true change. Accountability is not a bad thing, but it can be done badly. And that's where we find ourselves now.