The Future of K-12 Accountability in the COVID-19 Era

Six months into the United States’ COVID-19 pandemic, my feed is full of new blogs and reports on the future of accountability in K-12 education policy. Understandably so, when so much about our education systems feel up in the air. Having spent a good deal of time thinking about the future of K-12 accountability and assessment, I was interested to see how the conversations are shaping up in our first full school year of the pandemic. 

I will roughly categorize the following writings into those embracing accountability as part of a broader opportunity to rethink education systems, and those holding to a more traditionalist paradigm that sees current accountability policies as sufficient for improving student outcomes. 

Refocusing the Priorities of Accountability, written by Alex Spurrier, Chad Aldeman, and Jennifer O’Neal Schiess of Bellwether Education Partners, attempts to answer the question, “What should accountability for student learning look like next year and in the years to come?”  The authors acknowledge a need for accountability to adapt for the future while rejecting any possibility of a continued pause on “assessment and accountability” including for this, the 2020-21 school year. They propose three priorities for accountability: (1) as a means for policymakers to improve low-performing schools, (2) as a vehicle for schools to improve instruction, and (3) as an informational tool to support parent choice. The recommendations adhere to status quo accountability models: based on single, summative ratings, and deficit-based improvement frameworks where grade-level performance on statewide tests serve as the sole proxy for equity. The analysis seems to conflate accountability with assessment, assuming that the purpose of accountability should be to rank and sort schools and identify them for improvement, and that the sole purpose of assessment is to gather the data to make those decisions. This approach assumes that equity equals testing outcomes. Unfortunately, the current design of statewide assessments, good for funneling data up to the state but not for providing feedback to students, teachers, and families, provides few tools for improving instruction or objectively informing parent choice. 

In Rethinking School Accountability for the 2020-2021 School Year Scott Marion (Executive Director of the Center for Assessment) and Ajit Gopalakrishnan (Chief Performance Officer for the Connecticut State Department of Education) argue that we should not calculate accountability results from statewide summative assessment data in 2020-21, but rather “focus on providing information directly related to the activities that truly matter” in the coming school year. Examples of priorities proposed by the authors include: 

  • Plans to ensure student, teacher, staff, and family health for in-person activities;
  • Research-based plans to address students’ social and emotional needs; 
  • Assuring access to high-quality curricula and instruction whether in-person, hybrid, or remote and with the requisite connectivity and technology;
  • Plans to prioritize “small-scale, fine-grain assessments over large-scale, survey assessments to help teachers support” student learning; and
  • Evidence of student learning and school/district lessons learned about what future accountability and assessment should look like.

The authors’ assumption is that the purpose of accountability systems is to keep systems focused on what’s most important, i.e., ensuring high quality curriculum and instruction. They argue that assessment should always be in service to that goal, rather than in service to accountability for its own sake. In rethinking accountability, the authors are also clear that our current system designs and the assessments we use for them are not the gold standard, need not be etched in stone, and that holding to a traditionalist approach in this school year could have a detrimental effect on student learning.

A May blog from Terra Wallin and Sarah Mehrotra at the Education Trust (Schools Might Be Closed, But Families Still Deserve Data on Student Learning) threads the needle between the Bellwether and Center for Assessment pieces, acknowledging that while accountability as usual may not be a realistic goal in 2020-21, accountability is still a powerful concept for ensuring equity and that every effort should be made to provide parents with transparency on available metrics, including

  • per pupil expenditures,
  • social, emotional, and academic development,
  • graduation rates, and
  • resource equity school improvement plans

What I find powerful about these recommendations is how they begin to get to the heart of equity as the goal of accountability systems, without clinging to the traditionalist assumption that grade-level proficiency in math and reading/English language arts on statewide tests is the only way to operationalize equity. While EdTrust may advocate for returning to the status quo in short order, they are also emphasizing that grade level proficiency is just one of multiple metrics to operationalize the complex concept of equity. Indeed, if we’re not looking at resource allocation, conditions for learning, and school plans to dismantle inequitable structures, we’re missing a big part of what we need to work towards equitable systems.

Families are often left out of the equation when it comes to accountability, except as recipients of the data. The Data Quality Campaign report, Education Leaders Must Not Be Data Gatekeepers – Parent Portals Are a Key COVID-19 Recovery Strategy urges district leaders to make the same data available to educators about students to those students’ families at all times, and especially now that many of them are the primary learning facilitators at home. It stands to reason that parent portals should be a key component of future accountability and learning systems.

Finally, the C!E’s Gene Wilhoit’s excellent piece responding to the latest guidance out of the U.S. Department of Education (A letter from Gene Wilhoit: How might we respond to Secretary DeVos?) provides the most comprehensive and specific vision of what states can do now to reimagine accountability, given the current circumstances and the current policy context. Importantly, Wilhoit breaks down where he sees assessment intersecting with, rather than being driven by, accountability systems. The author encourages states to take advantage of the flexibilities in ESSA, including the opportunity to pilot innovative systems of assessments under Section 1204 to create more balanced systems of assessments that provide data needed for accountability, but that first and foremost support teaching and learning. Wilhoit urges state chiefs to ask themselves: “Does our assessment system only address state-level accountability at the expense of classroom improvement?” and, “If so, how might we reduce the footprint of our state assessment to allow for growth at the local level?” The C!E letter connects the outcomes we want for students with holistic considerations for the design of education systems to support them. 

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The Future of K-12 Accountability in the COVID-19 Era by Maria Worthen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.

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