Changing Testing Accountability

Texas Miracle

After the 1983 landmark study called, “A Nation at Risk,” some of the locusts of accountability shifted away from teachers, the principal and schools and towards testing scores. The idea of using test scores to hold schools accountable was spreading around the country but it took hold in a system that would soon be called the Texas miracle. Gov. Bush, who would later become President and Rod Paige who came from Houston and would later become his Secretary of Education were making a logical argument that accountability in education would be improved through testing. But the subtle shift of focus—instead of improving teacher training, curriculum offerings and student engagement—towards schools that would be improved by comparing them to each other was starting. Testing in and of itself would motivate all schools to do better. And those schools that failed would be closed and their students sent elsewhere. Testing companies like Pearson would jump in to provide these tests. 

By the early 2000s, the education [testing] contractors had carved out a powerful perch in Austin. “The testing companies and their representatives had become more bold, and were lobbying the legislature for more money for testing,” said Mike Moses, who led the TEA from 1995 to 1999. “Not only were people pushing for more testing, but for all the tests to be included in the accountability system,” he said. 

Owen Davis. (2018). No Test Left Behind, TPM, NEA

Narrowing the Curriculum

So for a little more than 20 years the testing industry and the billions of dollars associated with it have brought a sense of accountability that was deeply embedded in the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law of the Bush and Obama era. At the same time that testing was dominating resources for schools, the charter movement was also grabbing dollars off the education plate. And what educators and researchers like me noticed on the ground in schools was less support for teachers, more anxiety for schools and students and an unanticipated outcome of narrowing the curriculum. The narrowing of the curriculum came about because the two most tested subjects were English and math and the rest of the subjects became less important.

Failure of the Texas Miracle

By 2010 it became clear that the Texas miracle had been achieved in ways that called attention to the testing movement as a charade. Daniel Koretz (2018, The Testing Charade, Chicago: University of Chicago Press) documents how little evidence there is of educational improvement given the tremendous focus on accountability as defined by testing.

The whole idea of test-based accountability has failed – it has increasingly become an end in itself, harming students and corrupting the very ideals of teaching.

Koretz, D. 2017

Changing Accountability in Testing

But change is coming as the pushback from parents and teachers and increasingly policymakers begins to be heard at the policy level. With the new education law that was just past called the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) the search for a better set of numbers has commenced.

Testing companies like Pearson will also begin to change although there market dominance and the education policy makers acceptance of outside testing will continue. But the narrowness of standardized testing is already giving way to broader measures of schools such as equity, quality and school climate.  the idea that all schools should perform in the same way has obviously been shown to be unfounded given the idea that poverty levels are much more determined of achievement levels.

The winds have reversed at the federal level as well. Last year, the Obama administration devoted itself to reducing “unnecessary testing,” while Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, its first major education bill since NCLB. The legislation gives states more leeway in assessing schools, opening up space for reduced testing burdens. That could mean a reduction in revenues for companies like Pearson. The testing companies may also get an indifferent reception from Donald Trump’s nominee for Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who has championed vouchers and charters rather than testing.

Performance Assessments

Some of the forms of testing will also change into performance assessments – which test for what students know and can do as they apply their knowledge. Performance assessments are also more accurate in testing what students know because they test how well their knowledge will be applied. Book learning alone will not help students in the 21st Century workplace. Performance assessments are linked to better teaching and learning because they give teachers a much more accurate assessment of what students know and this in turn helps teachers improve their teaching. One of the universal complaints about standardized testing as conducted by outside companies like Pearson is that the results are not available to schools and teachers in time to improve teaching and learning. Performance assessments on the other hand are given during the teaching and learning and their results are easily fed back to teachers which makes them more likely to help teachers improve the teaching and learning process in a timely manner.

Training and Supporting Teachers

And there is some hope on the horizon that the education reform that is most needed will be recognized in the coming years – the need to support and train the best teaching force America can deliver. It would seem to the outside observer that training teachers was keeping up with school demands for a high quality teaching force, but the outside observer would be wrong. Rather than putting valuable resources into teacher training and professional development which is what teachers get once they’ve been trained, money is spent elsewhere. If there is one thing that school reform research and analysis can convey to the outside observer it is that one of the policy failures of the last 100 years in education is the failure to put enough money and support into teacher training rather than into personnel and resources that are outside the classroom.

Teaching is the Real Accountability 

The best accountability for schools is not higher test scores but rather a highly qualified teacher in every classroom. Great teachers are more nimble and dynamic and they can use new accountability forms of testing like rigorous performance assessment to help students achieve a high level of achievement. Since this is controlled by the level of education a teacher receives and the training they are given to engage their students at a high level of competence, we must give the resources and support to the place where real accountability for education is naturally lodged – the teacher.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

Dr. Robert A. Southworth, Jr.

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