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March 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 6

All About Accountability / Another Bite Out of the Apple

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    All About Accountability / Another Bite Out of the Apple- thumbnail
      Architects and building contractors are often elated when asked to rebuild a structure that they built the first time around. Assuming no disaster or loss of life was involved in this need to rebuild, most builders are eager to have, as one architect recently told me, “another bite out of the apple”—that is, a do-over enabling them to remedy any structural shortcomings that may have come to light.
      It's getting close to apple-bite time for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965. Since its enactment as part of President Lyndon B. Johnson's Great Society, this federal law has been reauthorized several times. The most recent incarnation of ESEA is, of course, No Child Left Behind (NCLB), which President George W. Bush signed into law on January 8, 2002. The next reauthorization is slated to take place sometime in 2007.
      If NCLB works the way its authors intended, it should lead to (1) improved overall levels of achievement by U.S. public school students and (2) substantial reductions in the achievement gaps between majority students and those students historically underserved by U.S. public schools. Both of these goals represent fine aspirations, and I've yet to encounter any clear-thinking person who disputes their worth. Certainly, most everyone applauds the law's “no missed child” emphasis. Educators now seem attentive, as never before, to making sure all students attain their full potential. Educators also recognize that NCLB has focused attention on the achievement of minority students, economically disadvantaged students, disabled students, and English language learners. NCLB gets an A+ for each of these important outcomes.
      But the designers of NCLB didn't get everything right. Experience has shown that two significant NCLB deficits currently harm our students. These problems need to be addressed in the next reauthorization.
      The most salient shortcoming of NCLB is its unrealistic achievement targets for schools. Requiring that all students score at or above proficiency levels on standardized state tests by 2014 would be laughable if such a patently unattainable target weren't so educationally injurious. Even though a loophole in the law lets states set absurd year-by-year time lines for meeting this goal, in most states adequate yearly progress (AYP) targets for the few years immediately preceding 2014 call for impossible jumps in student test scores. Even before the arrival of these final “pay-the-piper” years, current fears of flopping on AYP have inclined far too many teachers to engage in classroom practices that spoil students' schooling.
      A second big problem with NCLB is that the law allows states to select standardized achievement tests that cannot accurately gauge instructional quality. Scores on almost all standardized achievement tests used in the United States are too heavily influenced by the socioeconomic makeup of a school's student body. When, early on, federal officials gave states no meaningful guidance regarding what sorts of tests to use, state officials—more out of ignorance than malevolence—chose standardized tests that gave their state's educators scant chance to show measurable improvements in student learning.
      The question is, can we remedy these two major accountability deficits of NCLB? The problem of flawed tests is easier to address than the proficiency target. We now know how to create large-scale achievement tests capable of accurately assessing educators' instructional effectiveness. Moreover, it's possible to build achievement tests that not only accurately gauge a school's success, but also stimulate statewide instructional improvement. The state of Wyoming has implemented such tests. Other states could do so, too.
      The more vexing shortcoming stems from NCLB'S unrealistic achievement target of proficiency for all students by 2014. Clearly, the easiest thing to do would be to redefine proficiency in a less demanding way and extend the 2014 deadline. But, of course, there is political peril in such straightforward alterations of aspirations. Who wants to be linked to lowered expectations?
      Accordingly, the best way to bring a semblance of sense to this requirement would be to completely revamp the yardstick used to judge a school's AYP. For instance, rather than base each school's success on the percentage of students who score at proficient or above, we could focus on the percentage of a school's students who are achieving at grade level, that is, who display levels of achievement consistent with what a given grade's students should be achieving. With a substantially different yardstick for evaluating schools, we could set more realistically attainable targets for improvement—without any loss of face because of “lowered standards.”
      Here's how such a new metric for evaluating schools might work. Either on a state-by-state basis exclusively, or possibly with some federal leadership in the process, states could establish challenging, but realistic, expectations for what constitutes grade-level performance. Each state, as is now the case, could then lay out a time line for the next 10 years. An annually increasing percentage of students would need to earn grade-level or better test scores—in schools, districts, or the entire state. And, as is currently true with NCLB, this approach could be used to determine adequate yearly progress for students as a whole as well as for various subgroups of students. Using a different, more appropriate accountability yardstick would give U.S. educators an opportunity to establish demanding improvement targets that are both realistic and attainable.
      If our students are to benefit from the next rendition of ESEA, it's imperative to repair these two huge accountability deficits. It's once again apple-bite time. This time, let's get it right.

      James Popham is Emeritus Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. At UCLA he won several distinguished teaching awards, and in January 2000, he was recognized by UCLA Today as one of UCLA's top 20 professors of the 20th century.

      Popham is a former president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the founding editor of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, an AERA quarterly journal.

      He has spent most of his career as a teacher and is the author of more than 30 books, 200 journal articles, 50 research reports, and nearly 200 papers presented before research societies. His areas of focus include student assessment and educational evaluation. One of his recent books is Assessment Literacy for Educators in a Hurry.

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