Improving Accountability: Where Do We Go From Here?

How Can We Focus on Improving Accountability Systems to Improve Student Outcomes?

In recent years, assessment and accountability have become charged terms to many. In fact, school accountability systems, influenced by results from standardized achievement tests, are among the most contentious aspects of contemporary education policy. But when thinking about improving accountability, we must ask: how did we get here–and where do we go? This ambitious topic is one of several we are poised to tackle at the Center’s annual Reidy Interactive Lecture Series (RILS) on September 27-28, 2018. 

In this post, we take a look at some perspectives that will guide our exploration of this topic.

What is the Promise of Accountability?

Broadly, school accountability can be thought of as a system that:

  1. Signals what outcomes are valued
  2. Provides information about school performance with respect to those outcomes
  3. Prescribes a system of supports and interventions based on performance.  

The high-level theory of action behind improving accountability systems is that it occurs by incentivizing the right kinds of actions, shining a light on areas where improvement is needed, and providing targeted supports to those areas (Perie, 2007; Landl et al, 2016). That theory of action may sound straightforward enough, but this simplistic portrayal is built on scores of assumptions and a vast network of actions and interactions.

We think improving accountability systems can play a role in an overall plan to promote student success, but it would be misplaced to regard an accountability system as a holistic prescription for education reform. Accountability systems may highlight goals and benchmarks and provide some useful information to guide actions, but real educational progress has always been and continues to be pegged to the practice of teaching and learning that occurs daily in classrooms. In the best case, accountability systems can help focus initiatives, direct resources, and otherwise create the conditions for quality teaching and learning. 

Improving accountability may be necessary, but it’s far from sufficient.

Is This Promise Unfulfilled?

Throughout its twenty-year history, the Center staff have worked with states to develop education accountability systems. From NCLB to ESSA, from status to growth models, from standard to innovative assessment implementations, the Center has consistently been at the forefront of assessment and accountability system design and implementation. 

From this vantage point, the promise of education accountability has been a means by which evidence, primarily in the form of large scale assessment outcomes, can be used (in some way) to bring about improvements in the education system and ultimately, the outcomes of students.

Given two decades of efforts to conceptualize, implement, correct, refine and improve educational accountability in myriad ways, it seems prudent to reflect upon the entire endeavor. To what extent has education accountability fulfilled its promise? Are we simply engaging in an Einsteinian effort of insanity?

If, as we argue, educational accountability systems can play a role in an overall plan to promote student success, it seems clear based upon efforts from the last two decades that modest tweaks to past efforts will remain lacking. Adding fifth indicators, including student growth, adjusting indicators for demographics, etc. are all likely insufficient to change the mediocre record of educational accountability. Efforts to help accountability fulfill its promise will require a broad rethinking of the endeavor.

Improving Accountability: Where Do We Go From Here?

While we acknowledge that both the inclusion of assessment results and influence from the federal and state governments have an important role in school accountability, we argue that contemporary accountability is largely ‘out of balance,’ and this unbalance could be stifling productive local efforts toward meaningful and lasting improvements in student learning.   

A particular concern is the scarcity of strong local accountability initiatives, which we think have been both overshadowed and constrained by contemporary federal and state systems. We suggest a system that is both vertically and horizontally more coherent, flexible, and balanced. Such a system should allow and equip local education agencies to better meet the needs of the students they serve. 

We suggest five core areas that should be addressed to move toward more effective accountability practices: 

  • Principled Design: Is each level in the system intentionally and demonstrably designed to privilege a clear and appropriate priority?
  • Reciprocity: Does the system address the shared and inter-related responsibilities at each level?  
  • Distinct District Measures: Does the system address the unique role and contributions that districts make to promote student success?
  • Differentiated Local Systems: Does the system include local accountability initiatives tailored to the unique mission and attributes of the schools?
  • Evaluation and Ongoing Improvement: Is there a comprehensive and ongoing plan to evaluate, refine, and improve the effectiveness of the system?

At RILS 2018, we will explore the ideas presented in this post in more detail. Additionally, we will showcase initiatives we think represent promising promises.  

Ultimately, our interest is learning from the past to develop new approaches to help realize the potential of assessment and accountability to improve outcomes for students. 


Landl, E., Domaleski, C., Russell, M, & Pinsonneault, L. (2016).  A Framework to support accountability evaluation.  

Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers. 

Perie, M. (2007). Key elements for educational accountability models. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.