Securing the public's interest in good schools: Markets, testing, and accountability

My friend and colleague Robert Pondiscio has done his best—and that’s a high bar—to navigate and mediate between Jason Bedrick and Mike Petrilli in the latest chapter of America’s endless debate about whether school accountability is best done via the parent marketplace or state assessment regimes.

The argument is important—and Robert strives to find a middle ground: he’s for testing, he’s for choice, he’s for accountability—but he ends up closer to Bedrick in expressing reservations about “test-based accountability.” And he does this via a far-fetched analogy to foster care, asking whether parents would bar their kids from soccer and gymnastics if the big, bad state were to determine that foster placements will be based on the frequency of children’s visits to hospital emergency rooms. Robert frets that just as many parents would change their family behavior in undesirable ways so as to keep kids out of the ER for fear of losing them to the foster-care system, so schools alter their behavior in educationally undesirable ways when test scores determine their fate within the accountability system.

He’s got a point, of course. We’re all mindful of the downside of excessive reliance on test scores as criteria by which schools (and teachers) get evaluated, sanctioned and rewarded. It inevitably affects what happens in the classroom. Robert has been visiting a lot of schools lately, so he’s more sensitive than ivory tower types to the alterations in classroom priorities and practices that follow from such reliance.

But just as there are downsides to test-driven school accountability, there are shortcomings in the parent marketplace. In my experience, it fails to secure the public interest in effective schools that adequately educate the next generation of the public’s children—and do so at public expense.

What else might we do? Robert says it’s time for those who want schools to be accountable but don’t want their fate to hinge on test scores to come up with “some new ideas.”

But where are those ideas to come from?

Let’s take a giant leap and assume that essentially all families do have school choices, i.e., that there’s a true education marketplace. That’s coming closer to reality every year and may come closer faster if some version of a Trump plan to enhance school choice with federal help becomes a reality.

Then let’s take another giant leap and assume that the summative assessments that states administer to their public-school pupils are good tests that truly probe a reasonable sample of what society wants its children to learn; tests that are, in that sense, worth teaching to. That’s still a dream, yes, but getting closer as more states embrace better assessments.

Then what else?

One approach is to add more factors to judgments about school performance, much as ESSA envisions when it admonishes states to employ graduation rates and “at least one indicator of school quality or student success” along with test scores. States are now weighing student and teacher attendance, parent surveys, the incidence of pupil suspensions and sundry other factors. And since the law says at least one, an imaginative state could deploy multiple factors. We do, however, need to keep in mind that whenever high stakes are attached to any metric, those affected will find ways to manipulate that metric to their advantage. Which may or may not also be to the advantage of children and taxpayers.

The other approach—the only other one that my brain can conjure—is to create some sort of “school inspectorate” that sends competent observers into schools for direct observation of their workings. Trained and experienced observers who bring carefully designed criteria and rubrics with them, and who are themselves subject to various checks on their consistency, reliability, and comparability.

I see many pluses in such an inspectorate. It’s akin to what a top-notch accreditation system does—though we have so few of those that many have never seen one in action—and it’s what a top-notch charter-school authorizer does for the schools in its portfolio. (We don’t have nearly enough of those, either!) But let’s admit that an inspectorate system would be expensive. If undertaken by states, it would be seen as a threat to local control. If done by the federal government, of course, there’d be hell to pay. Whoever runs it, it will consume time and resources on the part of schools being inspected, much as an accreditor visit does; and it’s ultimately subjective, meaning that when its outcome is used for high-stakes decisions there will inevitably be appeals, protests, and probably litigation.

In the end, an inspection system might actually prove more useful by way of formative, school-improvement feedback—and the shape-up benefit of having someone watch over your shoulder—than in passing judgments on school effectiveness for accountability purposes. We also need to recognize that any inspectorate equipped with criteria and rubrics is apt to have a standardizing, homogenizing effect on schools and may thereby limit the diversity of the education marketplace that was part of the rationale for school choice in the first place.

Sure, like Robert, I’d welcome more “new ideas.” But I don’t have any more. While waiting for cleverer folks to devise some, I still see more pluses than minuses in relying fairly heavily on test results—the results of good tests, that is—and the various analyses that they lend themselves to. School choice for everyone is important, too, but the public has a legitimate interest in ensuring that they’re sound choices.

Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.