Restarting post-pandemic assessment and accountability. And now? (Opinion)


In the shadow of the pandemic, the issue of testing and accountability looms large. On the one hand, parents and teachers recognize the devastating amount of learning students have lost and the need to identify what their own children know and don’t know. On the other hand, when students have already missed a great deal of school time and are reporting high levels of depression and anxiety, no one is willing to sacrifice learning time or human connection so that children focus on testing.

This leaves education officials and policy makers with a conundrum: they need the information that testing can provide, but without the burdens that testing imposes. The disruptions of the pandemic have made this the perfect time to rethink accountability, especially since now, more than ever, we need a good window into how children and schools are doing.

The thing, of course, is that we’ve just endured a two-decade journey in which once broad support for testing and accountability has been bruised and battered. An important factor here, as I noted last week was the legacy of the No Child Left Behind Act. The NCLB began with the resounding promise that every American schoolchild would be “mastered” in reading and math by 2014 and ended with weary cynicism among educators, concerns about insanity testing, and backlash among the parents.

So now there’s a lot of mistrust and disenchantment with testing and accountability. Fair enough. Yet post-pandemic, there is a dire need for transparency and visibility on whether hundreds of billions of dollars in emergency federal aid have done any good.

The challenge is to deliver real value to parents and students, to minimize the burdens on educators and schools, and to avoid creating the kind of machinery that invites bureaucrats to try their hand at micromanaging schools. In a new volume AEI just published, seven leading thinkers offer some thoughts on how we can get there. I will only address three of the contributions here:

Former NCES commissioner Jack Buckley argues for low-load, high-value assessments. Today, he points out, we tend to emphasize tests that are heavy (like Advanced Placement exams) or light because they don’t offer much value to teachers or to students (like the NAEP). Buckley outlines the promise of an approach in which states administer a series of interim assessments, providing parents and teachers with up-to-date snapshots of student performance.

ETS Associate Vice President Laura Hamilton explores the promise of integrating more non-academic quality indicators into accountability systems. She notes that schools can be rated for safety, climate, or the ability to promote social and emotional learning, but there are also risks in moving from simple measures of basic academic mastery to more subjective constructs. In considering such a move, Hamilton urges educators and policy makers to ask themselves four crucial questions: What is the purpose of incorporating non-academic indicators? Is accountability the best way to achieve this goal? Who should select these indicators? And how to ensure that the data obtained is useful?

Especially in the wake of school disruptions that have caused many parents to seek educational alternatives, there is a need to reflect on how assessment and accountability can be shaped to meet the needs of students, families and educators in non-traditional environments. Michael Horn, author of From reopening to reinvention, considers the case of alternative schools. While students entering these schools often struggle academically, alternative schools are generally graded according to the same accountability parameters as traditional district schools, an approach that tends to disadvantage them. Horn argues that these schools should instead be evaluated on factors such as learning outcomes, program completion, post-graduation earnings, and student satisfaction.

These contributions, and the others in the volume, are not intended as a comprehensive program to “fix” evaluation and accountability. I fear that such an accusation is beyond the task of even the most enterprising analysts, in part because the necessary fixes will, I suspect, be different from place to place. But I know that many policy makers, parents, school leaders, educators and advocates grapple with questions of testing and transparency, and I think the contributors to this volume have provided a wonderful tool to frame and inform those conversations. And now is the time to have them.


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