Lisa Hansel

In the past two decades, something extraordinary has happened with very little fanfare: The reading ability of our lowest-performing children has increased significantly. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), between 1990 and 2012, the scores of nine-year-olds at the tenth and twenty-fifth percentiles increased by roughly two grade levels (about twenty points). For those children, those gains aren’t just impressive—they’re potentially life-changing.

At the same time, there has been a fourteen-point gain (a little more than a grade level) among fourth graders at the fiftieth percentile and a mere six-point gain among those at the seventy-fifth and ninetieth percentiles.

What’s causing this long-term trend of much greater gains among lower-performing students than higher-performing ones? That’s hard to say. There are many plausible explanations, but one that seems likely is that K–2 teachers have simply gotten better at teaching “decoding” (learning to sound out words). Nationwide, there’s been an increased focus on evidence-based practices, including high-profile initiatives like the National Reading Panel report and Reading First. Both stressed that children must be explicitly taught how to decode, and most early reading programs—and, more significantly, teachers—seem to have gotten the message.

But decoding is only the...

Way back in the days of NCLB, testing often existed in a vacuum. Lengthy administration windows created long delays between taking the test and receiving results from it; many assessments were poorly aligned with state standards and local curricula; communication with parents and teachers was insufficient; and too much test preparation heightened the anxiety level for teachers and students alike. These issues largely prevented assessments from being used to support and drive effective teaching and learning. That doesn’t mean just state tests, either, but rather the full range of assessments given during the year and across curricula.

But the new federal education law creates a chance for a fresh start. While ESSA retains yearly assessment in grades 3–8 and once in high school, the role of testing has changed. States are now empowered to use additional factors besides test scores in their school accountability systems, states may cap the amount of instructional time devoted to testing, funding exists to streamline testing, and teacher evaluations need no longer be linked to student scores. These changes may mean less anxiety, but that won’t equate to better outcomes unless significant reforms occur when states design their new assessment systems.

A new report from the Center...

A decade ago, U.S. education policies were a mess. It was the classic problem of good intentions gone awry.

At the core of the good idea was the commonsense insight that if we want better and more equitable results from our education system, we should set clear expectations for student learning, measure whether our kids are meeting those expectations, and hold schools accountable for their outcomes (mainly gauged in terms of academic achievement).

And sure enough, under the No Child Left Behind law, every state in the land mustered academic standards in (at least) reading and math, annual tests in grades 3–8, and some sort of accountability system for their public schools.

Unfortunately, those standards were mostly vague, shoddy, or misguided; the tests were simplistic and their “proficiency” bar set too low. The accountability systems encouraged all manner of dubious practices, such as focusing teacher effort on a small subset of students at risk of failing the exams rather than advancing every child’s learning.

What a difference a decade makes. To be sure, some rooms in the education policy edifice remain in disarray. But thanks to the hard work and political courage of the states, finally abetted by some...

If you care about state education policy and/or the new federal education law, you ought to spend some time doing three things. First, consider how the performance of schools (and networks of schools) needs to be assessed. Second, read the short Fordham report At the Helm, Not the Oar. Third, encourage your favorite state’s department of education to undertake an organizational strategic planning process.

All three are part of a single, important exercise: figuring out what role the state department of education must play in public schooling.

By now, everyone knows that ESSA returns to states the authority to create K–12 accountability systems. So it’s worth giving some thought to what, exactly, schools and districts should be held accountable for. What do we want them to actually accomplish?

But even if we get clear on the “what,” the “who” and “how” remain. Which entity or entities should be tasked with this work, and how should they go about it?

In At the Helm, which I co-wrote in 2014 with Juliet Squire, we argue that there are lots and lots of things handed to state departments of education (also known as state education agencies, or “SEAs”) that could be better achieved elsewhere....

Joanne Weiss

On February 2, I had the privilege of being a judge for the Fordham Institute’s ESSA Accountability Design Competition. It’s widely known that I’m a fan of using competition to drive policy innovation, and this competition did not disappoint. Fordham received a stunning array of proposals from teachers, students, state leaders, and policy makers.

But before we turn to the insights buried in these pages, I want to praise the competition’s conception, which mirrored the process that states should replicate as they design their own accountability systems. Contestants explained how their proposed accountability systems would support a larger vision of educational success and spur desired actions. They laid out their design principles—attributes like simplicity, precision, fairness, and clarity. They defined the indicators that should therefore be tracked, and they explained how those indicators would roll up into ratings of school quality. Finally, they laid out how each rating would be used to inform or determine consequences for schools. All decisions were explained in the context of how they would forward the larger vision.

Together, these proposals represent a variety of both practical and philosophical approaches to accountability system design. Here are the five major themes I found most noteworthy.

1. The...

Michael Hansen

I walked away from Fordham’s School Accountability Design Competition last Tuesday pleasantly surprised—not only at the variety of fresh thinking on accountability, but also at how few submissions actually triggered the “I think that’s illegal” response. I left encouraged at the possibilities for the future.

The problem of one system for multiple users

Having done some prior work on school accountability and turnaround, I took great interest in the designs that came out of this competition and how they solved what I’m going to call the “one-system-multiple-user” problem. Though the old generation of systems had many drawbacks, I see this particular problem as their greatest flaw and the area where states will most likely repeat the mistakes of the past.

Basically, the one-system-multiple-user problem is this: The accountability design is built with a specific objective in mind (school accountability to monitor performance for targeted interventions) for a single user (the state education office); but the introduction of public accountability ratings induces other users (parents, teachers, district leaders, homebuyers, etc.) to use the same common rating system. Where the problem comes in is that not all user groups have the same objective; indeed we expect them to have different purposes in...

The Fordham Institute’s recent accountability design competition put a lot of great ideas on the table. As states grapple with how to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we know a lot of their focus will be on assessment systems and how to balance growth and proficiency; that’s important work, and it’s required by the law, but it’s only part of the opportunity ESSA presents. The required assessments are all applied in third grade or later, but we all know that a substantial portion of the achievement gap opens well before third grade. So let’s not design accountability systems that look exclusively at the third grade and after. Instead, let’s design state accountability systems that create real accountability in grades K–2– and maybe even earlier—to keep educators focused on the importance of those years.

Under No Child Left Behind, state accountability fixated on the years from grades 3–12. While many local district decision makers understood the research about the importance of the early years, they also knew that test scores were the primary metric of their success, and that preschoolers were at least four years from taking accountability tests. In that time period, a district’s superintendent might change, or...

Most of today’s K–12 accountability systems are, themselves, persistently underperforming. One of the big problems is that they lean so heavily on student scores from reading and math tests. Even if the system uses growth measures in addition to proficiency, those growth scores are also typically based on reading and math tests.

Though basic literacy and numeracy are invaluable, schools provide boys and girls with so much more. When those other things—citizenship, the arts, non-cognitive skills, and so on—aren’t part of the system, all kinds of unfortunate stuff can happen. Curriculum can narrow, teachers feel constrained, the goals of schooling feel less fulsome, and kids’ opportunities can be limited.

There’s also the problem known as Campbell’s Law, which states that "the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."

The idea is that people and organizations feel compelled to change behavior, often in regrettable ways, to hit targets. So by focusing so specifically on reading and math tests, our accountability systems can actually diminish the value of reading and...

The eyes of the nation are fixed on a tournament of champions this week. Snacks have been prepared, eager spectators huddle around their screen of preference, and social media is primed to blow up. Veteran commentators have gathered at the scene to observe and pontificate. For the competitors, the event represents the culmination of months of dedicated effort, and sometimes entire careers; everything they’ve worked for, both at the college and professional level, has led up to this moment. The national scrutiny can be as daunting for grizzled journeymen as it is for fresh-faced greenhorns. You know what I’m talking about:

The Fordham Institute’s ESSA Accountability Design Competition.

Okay, you probably know what I’m talking about. If you inhabit the world of education policy, you took notice of Fordham’s January call for accountability system frameworks that would comply with the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act—and take advantage of the new authority the law grants to states. With the federal influence on local classrooms scaled back so suddenly, it will be up to education agencies in Wisconsin and Mississippi and Alaska to adopt their own methods of setting the agenda for schools and rating their performance in adhering to it.

The purpose of...

On Tuesday afternoon, we at the Fordham Institute will host a competition to present compelling designs for state accountability systems under the Every Student Succeeds Act. (UPDATE: Event details and video here.) The process has already achieved its objective, with more than two dozen teams submitting proposals that are chock-full of suggestions for states and commonsense recommendations for the U.S. Department of Education. They came from all quarters, including academics (such as Ron FergusonMorgan Polikoff, and Sherman Dorn); educators (including the Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellows); policy wonks from D.C. think tanks (including the Center for American ProgressAmerican Enterprise Institute, and Bellwether Education Partners); and even a group of Kentucky high school students. Selecting just ten to spotlight in Tuesday’s live event was incredibly difficult.

I’ve pulled out some of the best nuggets from across the twenty-six submissions.

Indicators of Academic Achievement

ESSA requires state accountability systems to include an indicator of academic achievement “as measured by proficiency on the annual assessments.” 

Yet not a single one of our proposals suggests using simple proficiency rates as an indicator here. That’s because everyone is aware of NCLB’s unintended consequence: encouraging schools to pay attention only to the “bubble kids” whose performance...