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Why We Need a More Meaningful School Accountability System

Johnny L. Veselka The following is the Executive Director's Message from the winter 2016 issue of INSIGHT, the professional journal of the Texas Association of School Administrators:

This fall, knowing TASA members’ concerns about the test-based state accountability system, state testing requirements, and the pending implementation of A-F ratings for schools and districts, the TASA Executive Committee authorized the development of the “Texas Accountability Series,” a collection of essays to inform school leaders, policymakers, and the public about the potential impact and consequences of the A-F ratings on Texas public schools.

We asked John Tanner, executive director of Test Sense and author of The Pitfalls of Reform, to research other states’ A-F rating systems and provide us with the pros and cons of the system Texas will implement in fall 2017. Across all of his research on the A-F systems in 16 states, Tanner could not find a single piece of evidence to support A-F systems as effective. He did, however, find evidence to support more meaningful kinds of accountability  systems, such as community-based accountability.

A community-based model empowers school districts to engage their local communities in designing their own internal systems of assessment and accountability that, while meeting general state standards, allow districts to innovate and customize curriculum and instruction to meet their unique needs.

Clear Creek ISD has led the way in advocating for communities across Texas to develop their own local reporting systems. District leaders began their own system’s development by polling their community. What they found was that educators, parents, business and civic leaders, and school board members all agree: The pathway to realize the district’s mission is not beholden solely on improved results on standardized tests. The CCISD community told district leaders that student success should be measured by what happens every day in every school; the amount of human and financial resources invested in providing students varied opportunities; and the level of public trust and community involvement. (See the district's most recent report.)

College Station ISD has successfully implemented a community-based accountability system with extensive input, based on its ability to: recruit, develop and retain qualified and dedicated staff; provide a challenging, relevant, engaging and aligned curriculum; provide an array of services, programs and opportunities to meet the needs of students;create classroom and campus cultures that involve families; and commit to responsible use of taxpayer dollars. (See the district's most recent report.)

Other districts have also begun the process of developing community-based accountability systems. They are doing so because they realize that accountability is important but that the current system — as well as the A-F system that is coming — are based primarily on standardized test scores and therefore not designed to provide the meaningful feedback they need to keep improving.

As Tanner wrote: “True accountability should guide improvement along the way, rather than offer a post-mortem on a year of schooling derived from a single data collection point at the end of that year. …True accountability is about improvement. It meets each student wherever he or she happens to be and then moves him or her toward a compelling future. … The CBAS approach represents the most exciting opportunity in 20 years to build a better mousetrap. It is not without its challenges, but we would be wise to vigorously pursue it. The only likely option is to let accountability happen absent the educational community, which would again be a shame.”