Why Accountability to Fed-u-crats Is Damaging Student Achievement
By Sandra Stotsky | March 3, 2017, 8:28 EDT
When the concept of accountability burst upon education policymaking in the latter half of the 20th century, it sounded like a good idea. It went something like this: If the government gives the public schools money, it should be able to expect something in return showing that the public schools warranted the money, not just an audit report showing that the money was spent in allowed categories (e.g., ƒpersonnel, supplies, administration). The concept was implicit in the 1994 re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) under President Bill Clinton. Later, in his State of the Union address in 1996, President Clinton called for national voluntary tests in grade 4 reading and grade 8 mathematics. But in 1997, the Republican-led Congress killed the idea by refusing to appropriate money for the tests. (See, for example, articles in The Los Angeles Times here or The Baltimore Sun here.)
The idea was embedded into federal law under President George W. Bush as part of No Child Left Behind, the 2001 re-authorization of ESEA. Many of his education advisors believed an “education miracle” had happened under his governorship in Texas in the 1990s after state tests were mandated, schools faced various sanctions for not showing improved student performance, and school performance improved. Bush’s education advisors were convinced that if accountability were built into ESEA’s 2001 re-authorization (in the form of sanctions for low-performing schools when student performance didn’t improve on state-mandated tests), we could expect better results than the public was seeing from the billions in Title I money that had been appropriated for the education of low-income children since ESEA’s inception in 1965. Not only had there been little research on the reasons for the meager positive results since 1965, there seemed to be little thinking about the differing meanings and effects of accountability in local, state, or federal education policy-making.
Nevertheless, although it wasn’t clear that test-based accountability for state funds had actually led to long-term positive results in Texas, the concept had broad appeal and the way it was embedded in No Child Left Behind was supported strongly by leading members of both political parties. (For negative opinions on the “education miracle” in Texas, see stories from MSNBC and The Guardian; and for a positive opinion see an article in City Journal.)
The concept also entered educators’ lexicons as something devoutly to be desired even when it meant that state agencies had to report to the federal education department on the Adequate Yearly Progress of students who had been sorted into politically defined groups, with progress defined by scores from annual federally-mandated state tests at specified grade levels. The constitutionality of detailed accountability to the U.S. Department of Education for federal funds seems not to have been a major issue for most No Child Left Behind critics at the time, even though, as legal scholar Benjamin Superfine later wrote, “the accountability mandates included in NCLB are unprecedented; never before has the federal government specified in such detail the steps that states, districts, and schools must take to increase student performance if schools fail to perform adequately.”
Defining the parameters of accountability has ended in battles over the effects of testing and the meaning of accountability. Who was to be held accountable for the low achievement of low-income kids? Their schools or their teachers? It could not be the kids themselves or their parents because they were portrayed as the victims of a variety of social and funding inequities. No Child Left Behind chose to hold schools and school districts accountable for test results.
Who would decide on the measures to be used for determining results and on the penalties for not producing good results? Education researchers and self-styled policy makers in the federal government, foundations, and think tanks? Or parents and state legislators? Again, parents, their high school children, or state legislators could not be consulted, for reasons that have never been elucidated. The Texas “model,” as well as President Clinton’s attempt at Voluntary National Tests, had a firm grip on almost everyone’s thinking. So researchers and policy advisors to President Bush decided on annual tests as the measures along with sanctions for low-performing schools.
To whom should the results of the measures used for accountability be reported? The staff at the U.S. Department of Education? Or state departments of education? Or state legislatures and local boards of education? While results would be reported in some way to parents, some of whom (i.e., parents of low-income kids) would be given a range of defined options if their children’s schools were continuously low-performing, parents as a whole were not encouraged through their elected school boards or their own organizations to suggest or make changes in the measures, allowable options, or the parameters of accountability itself. Results would be reported to the U.S. Department of Education, and the U.S. Department of Education would decide, with the help of staff at state departments of education, whether local school districts should be sanctioned and how. Again, the constitutionality of accountability to a federal agency seemed to raise few eyebrows. Who could complain if Congress wanted to appropriate money for the education of low-income students, and if states were willing to apply to the federal education department for the money knowing that strings were attached (e.g., calculating Adequate Yearly Progress and sending test scores for all students in the state to Washington)?
Unfortunately, a decade of No Child Left Behind test-based accountability and the use of approved sanctions (as an example in one state, see here) turned up little progress in overall student achievement or in so-called gap-closing — a new and very different goal for the public schools. Nor could researchers point to the academic effectiveness of ESEA funds since 1965, to judge by National Assessment of Educational Progress grade 12 test results from 1970 to 2015. No Child Left Behind was even deemed a “deeply flawed federal policy.” In her analysis, economist Helen Ladd did not criticize the concept of “accountability” directly but asserted that No Child Left Behind had too narrow a curriculum focus (reading and mathematics), provided no support for “disadvantaged” students or their teachers, and applied unrealistic and counter-productive pressure on them. Although her analysis was published in early 2017, Ladd did not indicate if and how the 2015 re-authorization of ESEA addressed the flaws she found in No Child Left Behind. While she noted that No Child Left Behind had allowed states to use their own standards and tests (which may have led her and other critics to believe there was no issue with the constitutionality of the law’s notion of accountability), she did not note that the new version of ESEA disguised its imposition of uniformity on the 50 states.
In the December 2015 re-authorization of ESEA, called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), test-based accountability is still a concept with a halo around it. The Every Student Succeeds Act repeats the requirements in No Child Left Behind for annual testing in reading and mathematics from grade 3 to grade 8, and once in high school. ESSA also repeats No Child Left Behind’s requirements for testing science at three different educational levels.
But self-styled education policy makers and others wanted to remove the possibility that the use of a variety of state-specific standards and tests under No Child Left Behind would prevent the “gap” from narrowing, so they wanted to centralize policy making more clearly in Washington. So they ensured, through the “Common Core” project (funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation) and the federal stimulus-funded Race to the Top grant competition (administered by the U.S. Department of Education) that most states would adopt similar standards, would report scores on tests aligned to these standards using some common test items if need be, and would hold teachers accountable to some extent for student test scores. If any state legislatures had any concerns about the quality of the state standards and tests their boards of education had adopted, the ESSA requirement of review and approval by U.S. Department of Education staff would ensure the similarity of whatever state standards and tests a state’s application for ESSA funds proposed.
Despite the claim by ESSA’s major sponsor, Senator Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, that federal control was being reduced, ESSA actually ensured tighter federal control over state standards and tests. Although ESSA language allowed states to determine their own parent opt-out policies, it tightened the noose as much as it could by requiring 95 percent of all students to be included in these mandated tests even though it contradicted itself by allowing states to determine their own opt-out policies.
In fact, the Every Student Succeeds Act and No Child Left Behind shared most of the same flaws — in particular, a reliance on test-based accountability (despite the lack of any evidence that annual testing benefited low-income students) and the inclusion of all public school students in these federally mandated tests, making all public school teachers, administrators, and students in every state accountable to the federal government. This was and remains a serious constitutional problem because states have to follow rules developed by the federal education department, even though the exact form taken by accountability in each state is supposed to be shaped by the states themselves.
We now have heated discussions about who should hold schools accountable, how they should be held accountable, and what should happen if schools do not show progress for all their students. We find defensive arguments for continued testing, as in “The Big Idea of School Accountability,” by William McKenzie and Sandy Kress at the George W. Bush Institute, as well as defensive arguments about accountability itself as in this article in Education Week. And control of what information should be required in an application for ESSA funds is now the object of a political battle in Washington state. Who should have the final say: an appointed state board or an elected state legislature? As an Education Week reporter noted: “The law dictates who has to be consulted, but doesn’t specify who has the final say and state constitutions aren’t always clear.” Indeed, ESSA did not require parents, state legislatures, local school boards, or higher education academic experts to participate in decision-making on state standards, tests, costs, sanctions, and the extent of teacher accountability.
The battle in Washington state is a result of the attempt by the Every Student Succeeds Act’s authors (whoever they are; authorship of the 1,000 page-bill has never been publicly identified), funders of the bill writers (never publicly identified), and sponsors (Senators Alexander and Patty Murray) to put power for revising state standards and tests in what were seen as safe hands — the state board and state department of education. That’s despite the fact that since their inception most states had poor K-12 standards and tests, and no independent evidence had been forthcoming that any version of Common Core’s standards or tests were academically sounder than what states had before 2009. It is well known that the Gates Foundation deliberately avoided involving local school boards and state legislatures when the Common Core project was sold to the states in 2009 and 2010. Since K-12 standards and the tests based on them were under the statutory authority of state boards of education in most states, approval for the adoption of Common Core’s standards and all the strings attached to them was seemingly needed only from the governor, the state board of education (frequently appointed by the governor), and the state superintendent (frequently appointed by the board of education or the governor).
To counter the fact that the Every Student Succeeds Act allows the exact form of accountability to be determined by each state desiring federal money, some organizations are pumping the prime for the primacy and preservation of federal accountability regulations in order to give the final say to the U.S. Department of Education, not local school boards, parents, and state legislatures.
Even though only about 10 percent of K-12 education costs are paid by the federal government and even though the “gaps” between politically defined demographic groups seem to have widened under Common Core, it is difficult for the authors, bill-funders, and sponsors of ESSA to acknowledge that accountability makes no constitutional or practical sense at the federal level. The last thing they want is accountability to local taxpayers or parents — those most affected by the federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act policies and regulations and those who pay most of the costs of local public education. This means that our public schools, while de jure under elected school boards and elected state legislators, will de facto be shaped by non-elected federal employees with non-academic agendas. So long as the Every Student Succeeds Act remains in place, public education will continue its downward spiral for all its students.
Sandra Stotsky, former senior associate commissioner at the Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education, is professor of education emerita at the University of Arkansas. Read her past columns here.