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Lessons—Accountability by Tests Alone Shortchanges Schools

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


Accountability by Tests Alone Shortchanges Schools

By Richard Rothstein

A hopeful trend in recent years is an increased focus on school accountability. We are determined to measure what works, so we can promote good policies and abandon bad ones.

But school performance is complex, and assessments should be as well. They should not rely exclusively on something so crude as standardized tests that include mostly multiple choice items. Yet that is often what happens, as in the New York State Board of Regents’ vote this month to rank schools only by reading and math scores.

Overreliance on tests can distort school performance. Test practice can crowd out other important curriculums and minimize creative thinking skills. Error-prone scoring can lead to false failures. And tests better reflect some students’ achievement than others’.

A National Academy of Sciences report last year said student evaluation should never rely on tests alone.

There is a better way to hold schools accountable. The Regents could beef up existing accreditation procedures, making them full school evaluations, including, but not limited to, test scores.

Six regional associations now accredit schools nationwide. The Middle States Association of Colleges and Schools, with headquarters outside Philadelphia, is responsible for accrediting New York schools, but few public schools here choose to participate. It is a voluntary process.

But elsewhere, schools do. Associations appoint teams of half a dozen or more principals and teachers, on loan from other schools. Teams typically spend a week examining a school’s curriculum, facilities, teacher practice, support services and student work. This evidence, added to test scores, gives a more complete school picture.

Prior to accreditation (about every five years), a school’s faculty spends a year in “self-study,” reviewing its mission and practice, trying to fix in advance problems outsiders might detect.

After visits, teams report to the association. Accreditation is almost never denied, but is often conditioned on reform. A school must then demonstrate continuing progress.

The Middle States Association recently issued 175 high school reports. About one-quarter required corrective actions.

Some were minor, like a school that was told to put eyewash stations in science laboratories. But one school must now survey its graduates’ college and workplace performance to see if preparation was adequate. Another was cited for too much testing and not also using evidence from student work portfolios.

The process now entails no public accountability. The Middle States Association would not name schools that were warned, because it sees accreditation as a way schools reform themselves, without outside pressure.

This secrecy should be abandoned. Other changes are also needed. Perhaps accreditation should occur more frequently. And it should give more emphasis to achievement of standards. New York’s curriculum, for example, is excellent, but Regents exams and other tests give only a partial picture of how schools carry it out.

To be credible, teams should include not only teachers and principals from other communities, but also representatives of the public: business leaders; parents from other towns who are active in their local schools; designees of the governor; state legislators or local officials, and college admission officers.

Teachers from other schools should still participate on such teams because few business people, parents or politicians can interpret whether student work is age-appropriate and reflects good teaching, or whether counselors properly handle adolescent crises.

In some places, accreditation is being improved. The New England Association of Schools and Colleges has made achievement of academic standards more of a focus. Reports are public, and negative reviews in Boston and Lawrence, Mass., and Hartford have been widely publicized. But Pamela Gray-Bennett, the New England Association’s secondary school director, notes that public members are added to teams only if schools request that they be. They rarely do.

In 1992, New York State began to develop a similar process. But this “School Quality Review Initiative” faded as testing became the main way to judge schools. New York City now also has review teams called PASS (Performance Assessment in Schools Systemwide). But state and city leaders have not used either of these for accountability, wanting them mainly for school improvement.

If the Middle States Association’s procedures were improved, state and city teams would be redundant. And if the Regents required schools to participate in a reformed regional accreditation system, we would also gain evidence about how New York schools compared with those in neighboring states.

Tests offer evidence of school quality, but should not be the only evidence. A choice between test data alone, and no accountability, is neither wise nor necessary.

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