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Trading Transparency and Accountability Today for Better Testing Tomorrow

Published:  September 23, 2013
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Photo by Flickr user albertogp123.

2013-14: the school year all American students, in all public schools, were expected to be proficient in reading and math. It’s finally here. But don’t kid yourself – nobody expects American schools to meet that goal this spring. And thanks to the U.S. Department of Education’s ESEA waivers (and waivers of waivers), most won’t have to.

Instead, 41 states, Washington, D.C. and eight California school districts have different goals for student performance. Goals that cut achievement gaps, or delay the universal proficiency deadline, or lead to college and career readiness, or something else. In some states, failing to meet these goals – like failing to make AYP – triggers interventions as a priority or focus school. But in others, there isn’t any meaningful accountability attached to the new targets. Moreover, many states won’t name any new priority or focus schools this year.

While states don’t have a clean record when it comes to gaming accountability systems, that isn’t necessarily what’s happening here. Holding priority and focus lists constant from 2013 to 2014 is a pragmatic decision on states’ parts, because school performance goals aren’t the only thing changing. Across the country, in waiver and non-waiver states alike, students will also be field testing the new Common Core-aligned tests developed by SmarterBalanced and PARCC. And the Department is letting all states apply for additional flexibility so that some students, in some schools, would take the field test and wouldn’t take state standardized tests in at least one subject. In other words, states won’t have to “double test.”

This creates a problem for the continuity of school accountability systems. How can you judge school performance fairly and accurately when the data aren’t comparable between schools? That’s like determining the faster runner when one competitor has hurdles in their lane and the other doesn’t. Further, the field tests aren’t designed to be used for making school accountability determinations, or frankly, measuring student performance. As Tom Kane notes in his incredibly smart take on the issue, the field test is meant to test the validity of individual test items, not produce a valid score for an individual student. Making a trade-off between high-stakes consequences for school accountability and a valid field test seems like a relatively easy choice. Hold accountability determinations steady and continue all current school improvement efforts, but make sure the field test is conducted to the highest possible standard so that the tests are ready for primetime in 2015.

But it isn’t quite that simple. After all, accountability is about more than being labeled a “failing” school or a priority one. Accountability relies first and foremost on transparent, accurate reporting of student achievement data. And this is where the field test creates a much more harmful trade-off. The U.S. Department of Education will still require all students to be assessed in both reading and math, but states will not be required to publicly announce the results for students taking a field test. For the first time in the NCLB era, there will not be achievement data available for a significant number of students and public schools.

This is a big deal. These data (should) inform nearly every decision made in education – for families, for educators, and for policymakers. Should we send our child to the neighborhood school, or try to enroll her in a charter school nearby? How effective was our new 7th grade math curriculum? Did our new professional development program improve teaching quality? Are the interventions in our focus schools working? All of these questions will be much more difficult to answer without student assessment data. Further, as Bellwether’s Chad Aldeman and Andy Smarick write, this compromises efforts to measure student achievement and growth as required in Race to the Top, ESEA waivers, and a host of other Obama education reforms. Yes, states could continue to administer their current tests during the field test, as they have during previous assessment revisions. But many will not. While the Department was clearly trying to appease (or even subtly encourage) states to participate in the field test, would states have really balked at field testing if every student was also given the state assessment?

Giving up a year of meaningful school accountability is a high price for getting better, more rigorous assessments that reflect what truly matters: whether students are ready for college and career. But the Department didn’t just give up meaningful accountability. They’re also giving up public reporting of test results at the same time. Does that make the price too high?

While it’s too late to reverse the Department’s decision, states participating in the field test should take a prudent and limited approach to it. Let field tests be field tests. They weren’t designed to be used as measures of individual student achievement or school performance. And the more students and schools participating in field testing, the larger the effect on transparency and accountability will be. Unfortunately, a few states – most notably California – are already gearing up to scrap their state assessments entirely this year and only administer the field test.

2014 was never going to be the year we saw universal proficiency. Unfortunately, it could shape up to be the year we see universal missing data. Let’s hope other states don’t follow California’s lead.

 

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