Considering Equity Within Accountability Systems in Response to Interruptions in Schooling: Making Accountability Systems Help

Mar 17, 2020

Identifying and Providing Compensatory Support to Groups of Students Most Impacted by Disruptions to Their Schooling

Right now, the focus of parents and educators is, rightly, on keeping students safe. 

American schools, however, are also on the frontlines to address inequality. Recent concerns about the accessibility of free and reduced lunch services with school closures in response to COVID-19 only serve to highlight the critical role schools play in providing services to students most in need. 

Once the dust of this COVID-19 storm settles, educators, administrators, and policymakers will begin the long process of picking up the pieces. Doing so will involve answering a great number of questions like:

  1. Should we extend the school year to make up for lost time?
  2. Will instruction need to be changed once students are back to account for interruptions in student learning?
  3. What students might be the most negatively impacted by interruptions to their schooling? 
  4. How can we identify those students and how can we provide them with additional support? 

Fundamentally, the last two questions address equity and are very much in line with what systems of school accountability are meant to do – identify groups of students within schools who need support so that schools and others can provide that support. 

However, if states conduct “business as usual” with their accountability systems, they will be met with resistance: “these students were already struggling, and missing four weeks of school didn’t help!” These types of concerns likely inspired the U.S. Department of Education’s (USED’s) recent letter noting they would consider targeted one-year waivers due to interruptions in instruction and assessment.

In particular, the letter notes that “… the Department would consider a targeted one-year waiver of the requirement to identify a school for comprehensive or targeted support and improvement if the reason for the identification was related to the school being closed for a significant portion of the school year” (emphasis added, p. 2). That is, if a school was identified because it was closed, then school identification can be waived. 

Assuming states even have the data to produce accountability scores, proving a school was identified due to a closure, requires careful analysis involving comparisons to prior or expected performance. Given the tight timelines required for accountability determinations, conducting these analyses may push identification well into the next school year. 

In considering schools with closures in relation to accountability, states must carefully attend to disparate impact across student subgroups. School closures may negatively impact some students more than others – likely those students with less support outside the school. If states are able to complete achievement testing, they must consider that this disparate impact may be reflected in subgroup performance. One equity-minded response would be to seek a waiver for school identification and in place of those identifications and associated supports, provide supports aimed at helping students who are most likely to be negatively impacted by school closure to catch up and keep up. Such an approach could even be used in conjunction with a ‘hold harmless’ policy, in which: 

  1. School accountability designations are maintained from the previous year, thus holding schools harmless, and 
  2. Additional supports are provided to student groups that are at risk of, or display signs of, disparate impact. 

Doing so would require some reallocation or reprioritization of resources. Time permitting, these reallocations could be made in proportion to the disparate impact on students: the greater the negative effect, the greater the allocation. 

Implementing a plan like this requires thorough consideration of how to best identify and support students, as well as conscientious action to make good on the results of those considerations. Enacting such a plan means putting aside the pressures to quickly produce “business as usual” school identifications, and instead adapting the state system to meet these unprecedented events. 

My goal here was to simply remind us that as we get the machinery of the educational system back on its feet, and the machinery of school accountability in particular, that we always attend to the core tenet of equity, and in doing so make sure that our solutions support those most in need.