Principles That Should Govern School Accountability: A Joint Statement from the California Charter Schools Association and the Ohio Office of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute

The California Charter Schools Association and The Thomas B. Fordham Institute

There has been much recent debate as to the utility in Ohio of a school accountability model similar to the one employed in California. During public policy debates like this one, the big picture can sometimes be obscured by the details. In an effort to raise the level of discussion, the California Charter Schools Association (CCSA) and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (Fordham) have joined forces to co-write this commentary sharing our perspectives on the key principles that should govern school accountability policy.

Before digging in, it’s critical that we address some of the misperceptions that have emerged around the issue. First, Fordham does not necessarily endorse the views expressed by the guest commentators who submit articles to its blogs. CCSA has deep concerns about the accuracy of the analysis by Dr. Vladimir Kogan that was published by Fordham on November 16. This commentary is not intended to address these statistical matters; rather, CCSA addresses those issues on its own website.

Second, Fordham believes that the Similar Students Measure developed by CCSA is a robust measure that makes extremely good use of school-level performance data. Furthermore, Fordham does not question the use of the model in California. In fact, Fordham thinks that CCSA deserves a tremendous amount of credit for its work over the past seven years to model, pressure-test, and compare the Similar Student Measure’s results to the individual student data they see when they conduct deep-dive reviews of schools’ performance. They have engaged with hundreds of schools over several years in thorough qualitative reviews to assess the validity of their quantitative findings. CCSA engaged with education researchers in designing its measure and has issued numerous reports on the resulting performance of schools. When making important accountability decisions, authorizers and policy makers throughout California have relied upon information about how schools perform on this measure, given the characteristics of their student populations.

Third, CCSA has consistently stated that a growth model based on individual student assessment data is a critical component of any accountability system. CCSA has advocated for such a growth model to be developed in California (one that measures the growth of individual students over time, accounting for their prior-year test scores) and believes strongly that the resulting information would provide a far more precise measure of schools’ influence on the trajectory of student growth. That said, CCSA also believes that taking students’ demographic characteristics into account ultimately provides an important and useful lens through which to view school performance in California.

With those matters cleared up, we now turn to agreed-upon principles that should underpin school accountability in California, Ohio, and states across the nation. As organizations that have long played active roles in the development of their respective states’ accountability systems, CCSA and Fordham offer five key principles that are critical to assessing school performance and implementing a meaningful accountability system.

First, state context matters. Each state should develop its own school accountability system based on the data that are collected and made available; the capacity of state agencies to successfully implement accountability measures; the unique policy environments in which schools, including charters, operate; and the needs of policy makers, authorizers, school leaders, and parents. Because of state-to-state differences, the design of school accountability systems has to be done with a great amount of care and sensitivity to the realities of each state. For these reasons, a one-size-fits-all approach to school accountability between different states is not desirable. From the Fordham perspective, we find no reason to engage in the debates on California’s accountability system. We claim no expertise on the intricacies of California’s policies and practices, and we fully respect the on-the-ground leadership of organizations like CCSA when it comes to accountability policies in their state. Likewise, CCSA respects the leadership role of Ohio-based organizations that have helped to shape Ohio’s school accountability policies.

Second, using raw achievement alone is not appropriate when making high-stakes decisions. Achievement data can be highly influenced by students’ background characteristics, preventing sound judgments about the actual impact of a school on student learning. That is why many states, including Ohio, have adopted student growth measures that track individual student gains over time to assess the contribution of a school to student learning. In the absence of an individual student growth measure in California, CCSA developed the Similar Students Measure to create a fairer and more holistic picture of school performance there.

Third, school accountability must be fair and not create disincentives to educate disadvantaged students. Yet another danger of using only achievement-based accountability measures is that they could inadvertently punish schools that take on the mission-driven challenge of serving the most historically disadvantaged students. A state’s accountability framework should not incentivize schools to “cherry pick” the easiest-to-educate students to the exclusion of our underserved pupils. Accountability systems should instead balance incentives, clearly signaling the urgency of higher student achievement and also fairly evaluating schools by measuring their contributions to the growth of students who may come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

Fourth, closing persistently low-performing schools can improve quality, but it must be done carefully. Analyses by CREDO at Stanford University and by CCSA have highlighted the role of charter school closures in improving the performance of charter schools in California, with more than 175 charter schools closing between 2008–09 and 2013–14 (of which 60 percent of those with data were in the bottom quartile of performance, according to CCSA’s Similar Students Measure).[1] A recent Fordham report found that the closure of 198 district and charter schools in Ohio improved the academic outcomes of students who were displaced by those closures.

At the same time, closing schools must be done with great care. CCSA, for example, takes a multiple-measure approach to identify schools that appear to be underperforming according to publicly available data. CCSA combines a status (achievement) measure, a growth (improvement) measure, and a demographic control (Similar Students Measure); they are now adding in a post-secondary readiness measure to identify schools that appear to be underperforming according to publicly available data. They then engage with each of these schools in a multiple-measure review that examines dozens of state-collected and locally collected data points to ensure that any recommendation they make on closure advocacy is based on a careful assessment of school performance across a wide range of student outcome indicators and all grade levels. This is the context in which CCSA’s Similar Students Measure was developed—to be used as a tool to help identify the lowest-performing schools for which authorizers should take a deeper look before finalizing a renewal or closure decision. This measure is just one part of an interconnected system of performance analysis that renders a more holistic look into whether a school should be closed. In Ohio, state policy makers have established a default closure law, though it has only rarely come into effect (since its enactment in 2006, just twenty-four charters have been shut under default closure). In the overwhelming majority of cases, the hard and delicate work of closing a troubled school has been undertaken by Ohio’s charter authorizers and/or governing boards—the entities that are best positioned to make a decision on closure.

Fifth, the bar for charter school performance must be set high. We must expect great things and provide multiple lenses through which to view performance if we want to ensure that no good school is closed as collateral damage in the quest for better outcomes. Both CCSA and Fordham believe firmly in the promise of charter freedom and autonomy in exchange for rigorous accountability standards. If charter schools are not delivering strong results on behalf of their students, they should be closed based on an accurate and complete picture of their performance.

Policy makers, authorizers, advocates, and school leaders must expect great things from all students— regardless of family background, race or ethnicity, or zip code. That is why we must be strong on accountability while also being careful and thoughtful about its design. States, including Ohio, continue to wrestle with difficult questions about school accountability policies. In these debates, we urge policy makers to look toward the principles set forth here. If heeded, they can help set the terms of the debate and lead to policies that create the conditions for a better charter school sector in California, Ohio, and across the nation.




[1] Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO), 2014, Charter School Performance in California, https://credo.stanford.edu/pdfs/ca_report_FINAL.pdf; CREDO, 2013, National Charter School Study, https://credo.stanford.edu/documents/NCSS%202013%20Final%20Draft.pdf; CCSA, 2014, Portrait of the Movement, http://www.calcharters.org/advocacy/accountability/portraitofthemovement/.