In the context of education, accountability is the idea that schools are responsible for ensuring that pupils' academic achievements meet agreed standards. According to government departments and agencies, educational accountability is essential for the evaluation of policies and budgets as well as for the allocation of resources. Accountability is not merely a reporting vehicle used to rank, rate and sort pupils, teachers, schools and states. Its purpose is to improve performance. An effective accountability system includes inferences about how to improve results in addition to the results.
Accountability needs coherent data. Data must be distributed and stored in such a way as to be accessible and usable in order to make hypothesis testing possible. In addition, data generated by different accountability systems should be compared under national standards. Smaller units of analysis make inferences from the collected data more meaningful. When considered on a larger scale, there is a less clear relationship between policy and results.
Until 2001, compliance-based accountability was the main mechanism for holding school systems and other recipients of government funds in the United States accountable. If an entity followed the procedures and enforced the rules, it was considered sufficiently accountable. The No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 is the prevailing example of results-based accountability. The NCLBs focuses on results as defined by state test scores. Under the act, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) is a calibration device, but each state is allowed to establish its own academic standards as well as its own assessment procedures. Results-based accountability also emphasizes the effects of education but does not provide insight into the results.
The NCLB emphasizes student performance, schools as the unit of improvement, public reporting of achievement results, continuous improvement and consequences for schools attached to student performance. Under NCLB, since the 2003 to 2004 school year, all states are required to rate schools publicly in view of the adequacy of their yearly progress towards meeting performance targets. All U.S. states have some kind of rating systems in place for all of their schools, but many do not provide assistance to all low-performing schools or hold all schools accountable for their results by imposing consequences for schools persistently below the required performance levels, or providing rewards to improving or high-performing schools.
Many school systems have employed expanded accountability systems in addition to exclusive reliance on test scores. Holistic accountability works on the basis of three tiers of indicators. System-wide indicators include test scores, school-based indicators include professional practices of teachers and educational leaders, and school narrative provides qualitative context for quantitative data.
Value-added accountability, as part of which schools measure students' progress by comparing their present performance to their performance in previous years, is used in a growing number of schools. Value-added accountability shows more meaningful comparisons and focuses on growth in achievement, which encourages low-performing schools and challenges high-performing schools. Value-added models are complex and there are cases when they are proprietary. In addition, for a test to show progress it will include both items below and above grade level and such tests are not consistent with the prevailing requirement under NCLB for state tests to reflect grade-level academic standards.
The notion that state education departments would monitor the number of computers in the classroom or the number of books in the school library, but did not pay enough attention to pupils' performance, has resulted in a push for accountability. States are not only looking to hold schools more accountable for their results, there is a growing tendency for holding students accountable for their individual performance. Some states require students to pass a test to graduate from high school, while others tie student promotion to test scores.
Opponents of such practices have raised concerns over the reliability and validity of making high-stakes decisions often on the basis of performance on single exams. According to critics, the curriculum will be narrowed and impoverished as a result of the focus on high-stakes testing. In addition, this focus could encourage cheating. Pupils from poor or minority backgrounds, who traditionally have shown the lowest results on standardized exams, would feel the heaviest burden. There are also complaints that the rush to hold students accountable has come before states have introduced the curricula, instruction, teacher training and other resources to enable students to perform in line with the higher standards.