The New Accountability Assignment

Michael Petrilli:

The spring of 2020 will forever be known as the season when tens of millions of American families took a crash course in homeschooling. Eventually we’ll learn whether this mass experiment in “remote learning” leads to durable changes in the U.S. education system, such as more students taking some of their courses online or opting out altogether from school as we know it. In the meantime, the massive digital footprint this experiment has created can provide fresh insights into how students spend their days. Here’s one project we could launch immediately: Let’s start collecting information about the assignments schools are asking pupils to complete and use that information, in addition to test scores and survey results, to evaluate educational quality.

It’s no secret that for years now, policymakers, researchers, and educators have been searching for additional school-quality measures to accompany standardized test scores. The quest for valid and reliable indicators has included a range of options, such as chronic absenteeism rates and access to challenging coursework. Some of this is wrongheaded and merely an attempt to avoid public oversight. It may well be an attempt to go back to the days when schools were judged by the size of their budgets or credentials of their teachers, rather than the outcomes of their students. As my colleague Chester E. Finn, Jr. has argued, tests may be the messengers, but accountability itself is the message that so many in education really want to shoot.

Regardless, it is certainly the case that data from large-scale testing is far from perfect, and that supplementing it with other strong performance measures could do a lot of good. For one, it could counteract some of the perverse incentives built into our current approach, especially the narrow focus on English language arts and math instruction. And the added metrics might get closer to the kinds of information that parents say they value. For example, some states and scholars have embraced school climate surveys, the most comprehensive of which poll parents, teachers, and students about their experiences, academic and otherwise. Several instruments have shown promise and can reliably identify which schools are nailing it with student engagement.