Why Do We Have Two Systems of Accountability?
By Paul Leather, Director of the Interstate Learning Community
“…I ‘walk out’, further out of my certitudes, ‘walk on’ further into uncertainty… I fear to talk about these things within the framework of academic institutions, I fear to be judged… I believe that the change in academic settings need to start by voicing out the repressed narratives of our community, exposing ourselves in the vulnerability of that fear, which will grow our strength. I want to bring these voices together…”
Within, By Questioning– Cleo Petric
Ramond has always liked math. The answers come to him easily in class, faster than Juan, his best friend, or better than even Maria, who reads way more than he does. So, last Thursday, when Mrs. Burch announced that she would be giving a test on-line, one that was supposed to be given last Spring, he looked forward to it. Sitting at the small desk that he and Abbi had set up for him in the back bedroom of their little ranch house, he felt he was ready. When she came on Zoom, Mrs. Burch told the class that they would need to keep their cameras on at all times and that they would be recording when the test was given. Ramond didn’t like that part, he liked to switch his camera off when he worked a problem, why should others be staring at him when he did his work?
When she was finished talking, he opened up the test. The directions told him to wait until the teacher started the process. The internet was “spongie” again, that was what Abbi called it when it flickered on the screen and odd messages appeared. Ten minutes went by, still nothing from Mrs. Burch. Ramond wondered what was taking so long? 15 minutes now, Ramond raised his hand on-line, maybe something was wrong.
Mrs. Burch came on immediately. “Ramond, are you doing ok?” she asked.
What does she mean, he wondered? “When do we start the test, Mrs. Burch?” he asked.
“Ramond, we are already 15 minutes into the test, didn’t you hear me say, ‘Get Started?’”
“I’ve just been sitting here, waiting,” he muttered, tears forming in his eyes.
“Well, get going, then, the test will be over in 40 minutes.”
Ramond opened up the first question and took a quick peek ahead. There were 50+ questions. No way would he be able to finish in time, he knew. As he scrolled back to the first question, nervous now to get going as Mrs. Burch had said, he bumped his chrome book, flipping it onto the floor, where it promptly flopped shut.
Tears streaming down his face, he yelled, “Abbi, they tricked me!”
Although the names and certain aspects of this story have been altered, this is essentially a true tale from this Fall about a fifth grader’s experience in a state where it had been decided to administer the state math test, against the advice of the State Technical Advisory Council. They had warned that the resulting data would not be comparable to previous year administrations, and thus not usable for accountability purposes.
When Abbi and Mrs. Burch connected that evening, Mrs. Burch consoled her, saying, “Ramond shouldn’t worry, we have to give these tests but it won’t count for his grade.”
“But he is very upset! He says he now hates math, when it’s always been his favorite!”
“You know he often gets upset when things don’t go right, you know he talks with Ms. Lynn,” shared Mrs. Burch.
“Yes, but this was just our wifi, it got spongie, like it does just about every day.”
“I know, but, just tell him not to worry about it and please know that we don’t take these tests too seriously, we have our own assessments that tell us more about how Ramond is doing.”
We hear stories like this from all across the country. And, aside from the particular difficulties of remote learning and testing in the time of COVID, they are not new stories. When I was Deputy Education Commissioner in New Hampshire towards the end of the NCLB era and during the transition to ESSA, I would attend local school board meetings. There, I would witness District Administrators explaining the state test results from the previous year to their local Board. If the results were good relative to other schools or districts, it was due to the wonderful faculty and hardworking students. Conversely, local adverse demographic considerations were central to the explanations given in communities where the results were not so promising. In all locations, however, the discussion usually ended with how the local Board knew that they had instituted their own assessments and their own set of metrics, separate from the state tests used for school improvement. The staff would extol these locally selected tests and their efforts to improve student performance. It was clear, even then, during the height of the state/federal standards and accountability era, that we had two accountability systems, serving two sets of purposes for two different groups of individuals, at two different levels, state/federal and local.
Psychometricians have called out these distinctions with “Balanced Systems of Assessments.” In such systems there is a recognition that there are different purposes served at different levels and, depending on distinct uses, if the design is both coherent and principled, the whole can be greater than the parts. Serving multiple identified use cases, these systems should be considered at best, “loosely coupled,” where vertical coherence between state level tests and local assessments do not bleed into the others’ purposes, and also do not provide conflicting information to end users. Further, in order to address improvements in the classroom, it is best to be concerned with “horizontal coherence” of curriculum, instruction, and assessments, rather than prepping to the state test, with the hope that intense focus at the this level will result ultimately in state level test improvement.This narrative construct is tough to follow at present, however, as so much state policy and consequential incentives are still based on vertical coherence. For teachers, this may mean that performance evaluations are still tied to state test results, for superintendents, tenure or even the question of a school’s existence may still be based on improved state test performance. Hence, we continue to see state test prep taking time away from deeper classroom instruction and outsized attention to state level results, particularly for schools in lower income communities, where quality instruction is so very important.
During these perilous times, we need to ask the following question -- are we well served by multiple accountability systems where both stakes and impact are overlapping in questionable ways? A further concern is that both systems are essentially internally focused — one with equity of opportunity, the other with system improvement, and the state level pressure and impact on the classroom remains unchecked. As some state Commissioners and boards of education have chosen to implement low stakes state assessments to evaluate learning loss since last March, as done in Ramond’s State, we have observed many students and parents giving evidence to their own decisions with their feet – fewer and fewer students are returning to class or Zoom calls. We are seeing general disengagement from public schooling at levels unprecedented in modern times. Recent findings from our focus groups show that the local concerns of disengaged students, disappearing families, and overstressed educators faced with the day-to-day challenges of multiple choice options for student learning, (in-school, hybrid, or fully remote), are far outweighing the less immediate concerns of meeting federal and state testing and accountability expectations.
Indeed, as we see in broad sectors of society a growing distrust of many governmental institutions, we hear parental and community voices asking, “are these state tests relevant today?” Faced with broad guidelines for opening and/or closing schools during COVID developed by political bodies in the state capitol, local school boards and educators are going their own way. This trend often results in a patchwork of school systems open or closed almost randomly across the landscape. This, in turn, causes other problems, teachers living in one town with schools fully remote, required to report for duty to the school 10 miles away in the next district, caught in an impossible set of choices for their own children and careers.
As we drill deeper, we see paradoxically that trust in local schools is waning simply due to parents and family members finding themselves more and more involved on a daily basis in the delivery of schooling. The one-size-fits-all methods that define many of today’s public school classrooms no longer make sense if we optimally desire to support each individual student’s learning. This truth is ever more apparent today for a mother of two, with one child bored as she completes her online daily assignments in less than two hours, while the other appears to be inextricably lost in grade level work that lies well beyond his learning edge.
If it is not too late, it is time that we reconsider how we think about school accountability, as we shared in A New Path Forward this month. Yes, equity of opportunity across zip codes needs to be addressed. But schools need to be more accountable on a day-to-day basis to the students, parents, families, communities, and educators they serve. Surely, we can find better ways to meld these two purposes. Rather than continue to operate state assessments and accountability measures that were not designed for the conditions and challenges of these times, wouldn’t we be better served by redesigning the system overall?
You may say, “but you’re talking about changing immutable realities at the very core of the infrastructure that define the very shape of the overall system.“ We agree, we have discussed how the core of the fractal of public education is inequitable, systemically racist and we think the only path to equity is THROUGH change in what was initially defined as immutable at the core of our educational system. But you may ask, “are we indeed addressing some things that are not possible to change?” What if this had been Thurgood Marshall’s argument in the opening of the landmark case, Brown vs. the Board of Education in 1954, would we even question the existence of segregated schools? You may say, “yes, maybe in an ideal world this should be done, but, well, this will be a hard path to follow. The system as we know it was designed to make education effective and efficient while serving all.” As we previously discussed in Gretchen Morgan’s post, “Origins of the C!E Theory of Action Part 1: Fractals,” this argument denies the inconvenient truth that the current model, core elements first adopted in Thomas Mann’s Prussian influenced Common School design of 1843, and later amended as high schools were re-configured by Harvard President Charles Eliot and the Committee of Ten in 1893, set in place for the ages a system where opportunity is intended to school every child, but to particularly favor “the fit and the able.” By fit, we do not mean “in good health due to exercise,” we mean “of the right size and shape” (and color) most like those currently enfranchised. By “able,” we do not mean “capable of performance,” we mean “most likely to succeed in society as it is currently constructed.” U.S. Public Education as we currently know it is largely an institutional artifact, sitting withIn a society that is rapidly changing demographically. Communities are integrating and socioeconomic redlines are being crossed, if not erased. More and more local leaders recognize the essential need to adapt to emerging complex and chaotic conditions and challenges. Today’s students are not well served by a system where the goal is to meet a set of realities that have become obsolete as they struggle to graduate.
We need to do better by all of our students and our communities. We need to do better by Ramond. Abbi and her family will demand it and Mrs. Burch will need to understand why this is true, how it might be done, and what she will need to make a new order real in her classroom. The system must flex, adapt, and adjust. It needs a full redesign. We, all of us, are called to this work. As the rightful owners of our schools, we can grow strong in the face of fear of failure or judgment. As Cleo Petric muses, we can be safe in our vulnerability. We need to “Walk Out and Walk On,” as Margaret Wheatley and Deborah Frieze have shared.It is time we take this particular journey together, and in so doing, we are responsible to ourselves and to one another. We need to remember Richard Elmore’s admonition regarding the need for reciprocity between teacher and learner, and recognize how it speaks to the need for reciprocity between educators and parents, state and local community -- “For every increment of performance I demand from you, I have an equal responsibility to provide you with the capacity to meet that expectation. Likewise, for every investment you make in my skill and knowledge, I have a reciprocal responsibility to demonstrate some new increment in performance.”  Though difficult, Elmore’s challenge to all of us feels today more like the path worth following. The time is now.
[1, 2] A Tricky Balance: The Challenges and Opportunities of Balanced Systems of Assessment. S. Marion et al. Center for Assessment. 2013
 Design Principles for New Systems of Assessment. L. Shepard, W. Penuel, & K. Davidson. 2017
 School Districts Saw Unprecedented Drop in Enrollment. 60 Minutes. CBS News. November, 2020
 Walk Out Walk On: A Learning Journey into Communities Daring to Live the Future Now. M. Wheatley and D. Frieze. April, 2011
 Elmore, R. 2002. Bridging the Gap between Standards and Achievement: The Imperative for Professional Development in Education. Washington, DC: Albert Shanker Institute.