Responding Effectively to Test-Based Accountability

By Hamilton, Laura; Stecher, Brian | Phi Delta Kappan, April 2004 | Go to article overview

Responding Effectively to Test-Based Accountability

Hamilton, Laura, Stecher, Brian, Phi Delta Kappan

Taking NCLB at its word, Ms. Hamilton and Mr. Stecher look beyond each year's release of test scores and consider how to make the new law work more effectively as a tool for educational improvement.

THE NO CHILD Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001 has focused the attention of educators, policy makers, and the public on accountability for performance in public education. Yet many of those who will be responsible for improving school performance lack guidance on how to proceed in the brave new world of NCLB accountability. For the most part, state education department and district staff members, principals, teachers, and parents have spent their time trying to understand what the law means and how it will affect them. They have had to react quickly -- and sometimes without much direction -- to those provisions of the law that have already gone into effect. Few have had time to look ahead and make plans for operating effectively in this new environment. This article is intended to offer some strategies that will help educators function better in the world of accountable districts and accountable schools.

NCLB mandates the implementation of accountability systems that include standards, assessments, annual progress goals, and incentives. States have options about how some of these components are constituted, but all must be present. Together these components make up what we call a test-based accountability system. The system is designed to improve school outcomes by sending clear signals about expected performance (standards), measuring student achievement against those standards (assessments), comparing performance to increasingly tough targets (annual progress goals), and establishing rewards and sanctions to change behaviors and promote improvement (incentives). NCLB mandates accountability for student outcomes and is designed to give states, districts, and schools flexibility over the educational process. The core of NCLB is an annual feedback loop in which information about the attainment of progress targets triggers incentives that, in theory, reinforce positive practices (those that lead to student achievement) and sanction negative ones. The law requires students to be taught by qualified teachers using proven practices, but beyond that, the intention is for local educators to have control over curriculum, instruction, school organization, and other features of schooling.

To many observers outside the education system, emphasis on accountability seems like a logical approach to ensuring good performance on the part of educators. At the same time, those who work in schools, districts, and state departments of education have expressed concerns that the law imposes unrealistic targets and will prove detrimental to the quality of public education. There is research to support the views of both advocates and critics. On the positive side, schools, teachers, and students seem to respond to the incentives created by accountability systems, and scores on state tests typically rise after these systems are introduced. There is also evidence that scores on some external tests, such as the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), may rise when states implement accountability systems.1 On the negative side, higher test scores do not necessarily reflect real gains in student mastery of content standards; they may, for example, reflect students' learning of particular test content or formats. Even when NAEP scores rise, the gains tend to be many times smaller than those on the state test of the same subject matter.2 In addition, test-based accountability sometimes leads to changes in curriculum and instruction that are not necessarily desirable.3 Regardless of whether the research to date is interpreted as positive or negative, educators must learn to operate in the environment of accountability defined by NCLB. They must find ways to respond to the law and provide the best services possible to the students they serve. …

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