Seven years ago, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) went into effect, giving states more flexibility to create individual education accountability plans that address their specific needs. ESSA replaced the No Child Left Behind Act, which took effect in 2002 and required states to implement educational accountability systems. Accountability systems are intended to “close achievement gaps, increase equity, improve the quality of instruction, and increase outcomes for all students,” according to the U.S. Department of Education. It is time to evaluate progress toward those goals and to examine the effectiveness of state accountability systems.
When it comes to evaluating and validating assessments, including those used within statewide education accountability systems, the measurement community does many things well: We scrutinize the development of test blueprints and test items. We examine how effectively items function individually and how they behave as a group to generate estimates of students’ ability in reading, math, science, and other content areas. We evaluate test alignment to standards, and how accessible tests are for all students. We compare results of the assessments across student groups to seek out and address potential biases.
Despite these laudable efforts, gaps remain. Most critically, few resources are devoted to identifying data-driven ways to ensure the correct schools and districts are identified by the accountability system, and even fewer resources are spent determining whether the accountability system is improving students’ educational outcomes. However, this type of outcomes-focused research is exactly what is needed to support well-designed interventions to assist students in the identified schools and districts.
Ultimately, the purpose of state accountability systems is to identify schools and districts where assistance is most needed so that the state can allocate very targeted—and often very limited—resources. Recent state evaluations conducted by HumRRO can help identify best practices that should be used when gauging the effectiveness of an accountability system.
Focus on Outcomes
Ultimately, the evaluation of an accountability system must address the intended purposes and intended outcomes of that system. An evaluation must address aspects of assessment quality. However, while a valid and reliable test is necessary, it is only one component of an effective accountability system.
Addressing the ways test scores are used and combined with other indicators is vital. Understanding how the components of the accountability system are intended to function, defining proximal and distal goals and intended outcomes, and establishing reasonable indicators to monitor progress toward those goals are vital for a fair and comprehensive evaluation.