Instructional Leadership in Action

Why Heavy-handed Accountability Has Not Improved Teaching and Learning

by Stephen Fink on Aug 4, 2015


School’s out but the backlash to the relentless drive to hold educators responsible for results still reverberates through schools, districts and legislatures nationwide. Recent news tells the story: Revolt against high-stakes standardized testing growing. Thousands of students opt out of Common Core tests in protest. Inside the Mammoth Backlash to Common Core.

The backlash has been fierce, widespread – and entirely predictable. That’s because our nation’s intense focus on accountability was misguided from the beginning.

First let me state in unequivocal terms that I believe educators need to be accountable to their students, parents and communities. This accountability stance is entirely consistent with the Center for Educational Leadership’s (CEL) mission to eliminate the achievement gap. And in order to hold educators accountable we must have reliable data about how each and every one of our students are performing. The question is how to gather and use that data in ways that actually help improve the quality of teaching and learning.

There is no question that accountability has its place in K-12 education. But for too long, accountability has focused on the wrong things.

Many current state and school district accountability policies tie a range of sanctions and rewards to student test data. I believe these types of policies are fundamentally flawed, and in total have sowed the seeds of the widespread discontent we are seeing across our school communities. Simply telling a teacher or principal that students are not doing well does not enable them to improve their practice. The only thing that helps practice improve is well-crafted and sustained professional learning, mainly in the form of teaching and coaching. 

There is no question that accountability has its place in K-12 education. But for too long, accountability has focused on the wrong things. In this and a series of upcoming blog posts, I will highlight some of the issues with our accountability-first approach, how it relates to current debates around “opt-outs” and Common Core and what we can do to move forward.

How testing became "overtesting"

But first, let’s look at some of the key policy decisions and how we got to a situation in which “overtesting” has become a household verb in education circles and beyond.

NAEP scores, the largest nationally representative and continuing assessment of America's students, actually showed a steadily narrowing achievement gap between the 1970s and the late 80s. But since then, the gap has closed more slowly and for some age groups not at all.

Enter No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The bill united liberals and conservatives under the banner of accountability. Liberals and their allies in the civil rights community hoped that this new approach would close persistent achievement gaps for poor and minority kids.

Test scores broken down by race, income or special education were supposed to shine a light on the performance of specific subgroups and create urgency around addressing their learning challenges.

Conservatives under then-President George W. Bush envisioned a system that would hold educators accountable for results and ultimately give parents more information to make better choices for their children’s education.

All stick and no carrot

NCLB was a stunning political achievement. It put the poor performance of our education system into a spotlight and set out to really change the lives of the most disadvantaged students.

So, what went wrong?

It turned out NCLB was all stick and no carrot. Schools had to demonstrate “adequate yearly progress” in their test results or face – often dire – consequences. Results became all-important and a high-stakes testing culture took root. What was missing in all this accountability action was a clear way to address persistent achievement gaps and actually help teachers improve their practice. And there is no question that teaching is increasingly demanding and complex given the persistent inequities in our economic and social structure that drive large opportunity gaps among our nation’s children.

At CEL, we use April for our own staff and program development since mid-March through the end of April is “testing time.” In most districts everything shuts down and improvement work stops.

Today, the harmful effects of out-of-control accountability are all too obvious. In my work with schools and districts across the country I have observed schools watering down the curriculum and spending countless hours drilling students in “test-prep” – all in the name of making sure that kids pass the tests.

The sheer number of tests has reached disruptive levels. At CEL, we use April for our own staff and program development since mid-March through the end of April is “testing time.” In most districts everything shuts down and improvement work stops.

Even more important, the results don’t match the lofty reform ambitions. Despite some marginal improvement in NAEP scores, we have seen only modest progress in closing achievement gaps. The original goal of all students achieving high academic standards by attaining proficiency or better in reading and mathematics by the 2013–2014 school year was missed by a mile.

Like an out-of-control bulldozer, the heavy focus on accountability is now taking down other important reform initiatives. Establishing higher academic standards is crucial for better student learning. But frequent and early testing have taken over the public's image of Common Core – the initiative promoting higher academic standards – and pushed it to the brink of collapse.

How to move forward?

The long-awaited reauthorization of NCLB is now at a pivotal moment as both the Senate and House have passed their own bills, which now must be reconciled. At a minimum it looks like states will gain more flexibility in terms of how they hold schools accountable. It’s worth noting that it was the utter failure of every state to hold schools accountable that led to the passage of the original NCLB. That said, the more important question for policy makers is how to use the reauthorization as way to focus on real improvement in teaching and learning.

For certain we need to address the heavy test burden for students and teachers. And we must note that not all of the tests are a result of federal policy. Many states and local school districts have added their own tests. In terms of measuring individual school/district effectiveness, there are some measures that could reduce the test burden including the use of sampling strategies.

But a better, less intrusive testing regime doesn’t right the wrong idea behind current accountability efforts. Focusing exclusively on testing results will NOT in and of itself create improvement. There is simply no evidence for this assumption.

But what if we focused on improvement not to the exclusion of results but with the main focus on improvement? Supporting teachers’ authentic learning in deep and sustained ways is a better way to improve teaching and learning than testing. Because in the end, an exclusive focus on accountability will not result in teacher growth, but a focus on growth can achieve accountability.

About the author: Stephen Fink

Dr. Stephen Fink is affiliate professor of educational leadership and policy studies in the University of Washington College of Education. He served as the founding executive director of the University of Washington Center for Educational Leadership (CEL) from 2001 to 2018. Dr. Fink is co-author of Leading for Instructional Improvement: How Successful Leaders Develop Teaching and Learning Expertise.

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