Birds flying over different colored blocks to indicate an innovative approach that brings us forward.

It’s Time for an Innovative Accountability Pilot

Establish the Right Conditions to Fulfill the Promise of Innovation 

When the Every Student Succeeds Act was passed in 2015, many were optimistic about the Innovative Assessment Demonstration Authority (IADA). Proponents saw that provision as a means to try out promising ideas to improve the design and implementation of assessment. 

While some impressive work has been accomplished and is ongoing through the IADA, I believe that more substantial innovation was always constrained by regulations that inevitably limited substantial progress. In particular, an innovative accountability pilot should have preceded or accompanied an innovative assessment pilot. It’s time to correct that. 

Promoting the Conditions for Innovation

Why do we need to address accountability to truly innovate? I’ll offer an analogy to help make the point.  

Portable technology to track personal fitness has grown by leaps and bounds in recent years.  When I first started using this technology, I focused on the primary feature available at the time: tracking steps. I used that feedback to monitor my progress and inform my decisions (should I take the stairs instead of the elevator?). But whatever benefits step-counting offered, I recognized it as a limited measure of overall fitness.  

Over time, innovations opened up new possibilities. Since contemporary devices can do much more, such as help users track a variety of exercises, log nutrition, and monitor sleep patterns, they are more useful tools to help people support healthy lifestyles.  

Imagine that a funder in the early days of developing fitness devices wanted to incentivize innovation, but their narrow criteria for success was whether the new device tracked movement comparably (i.e., steps) and led to users taking more steps. Naturally, this constraint would impede both meaningful innovation and positive impact.   

Breaking Away from the Status Quo 

What does fitness tracking have to do with assessment and accountability? Contemporary school accountability systems are primarily focused on proficiency in English/language arts and math. Yes, they can and do measure other outcomes, but proficiency in ELA and math is mostly what moves the needle. We can ask for more innovative measures of ELA and math, but if they are used to produce the same proficiency rates that are plugged into the same accountability systems, we’re still counting steps. 

My colleague Scott Marion explained this problem well in a piece about how accountability can be a roadblock to assessment reform. He notes that if we don’t reform accountability along with assessment, we’re left with two bad choices. 

We can decouple the new (i.e., innovative) assessments from accountability, which risks having schools and teachers focus only on the old accountability tests; or we can integrate new assessments into old accountability systems, which risks degrading the usefulness of assessments designed for different purposes. In either case, the so-called innovation is either ignored or corrupted.   

The Path Forward for Flexibility in Accountability 

Marion and I agree: flexibility in accountability must accompany assessment reform. A good vehicle for that reform is an innovative accountability pilot. Since school accountability requirements are specified in ESSA, the pilot could be created in a new authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). In fact, my colleagues and I included this idea, among others, in our recommendations for ESEA reauthorization. Without a change or special provision in federal law, an innovative accountability pilot would require a waiver.  

What Kinds of Flexibility Should be Provided? 

An innovative accountability pilot should offer flexibility in at least three key areas to help spark innovation. It should: 

  • Expand indicators: Allow states to propose a set of indicators that is not constrained by either the categories or definitions in ESSA. This may permit states to explore broader approaches to measuring performance and progress in academics and beyond. It also opens up accountability systems to more directly address inputs, such as conditions and resources required for success, as well as outcomes.  
  • Permit differentiation: States should be allowed to explore accountability solutions that are not ‘one-size-fits-all.’ They may wish to explore, for example, distinct solutions for alternative or other specialized schools that better fit their mission and context. Also, the pilot program should not require that states demonstrate comparability with their old system.  
  • Reduce burden: Innovation cannot flourish if pilot initiatives are just add-ons to the existing system. Participants in the pilot must be allowed to operate outside both current requirements and any punitive consequences (not supports) of the general system in order to mitigate the implementation burden and avoid misplaced incentives.  

What Commitments Should be Required?   

Of course, changing or waiving federal law should not be taken lightly. Whatever its shortcomings, I believe ESSA includes many important provisions and safeguards that must be maintained. Any special provision or waiver is a two-way street: In return for receiving flexibility to pursue innovation, participants would take on new responsibilities. These include: 

  • Amplifying equity focus: One of ESSA’s strengths is its focus on supporting the success of all student groups, which includes mechanisms to guard against masking inadequate support of specific groups of students. This focus should continue. In fact, proposed innovative accountability systems should explicitly address how the system not only maintains but strengthens efforts and outcomes to support the success of all student groups and provides transparent reporting.  
  • Establishing a comprehensive theory of action: Innovative accountability pilots should be anchored in a comprehensive theory of action that specifies how the conditions, resources, monitoring, and support work together to support improved student success. Responsible innovation is not a license to simply try out new ideas and see what happens. Our commitment to meeting the needs of students demands that pilot systems are grounded in strong ideas with a solid research base. In fact, I believe the innovative pilot should have an added burden to guard against type II error (a failure to deploy support when required), and this should be addressed in the theory of action.   
  • Evaluating impact: Ultimately, participants in an innovative accountability pilot must be prepared to demonstrate how the increased flexibility produces improved outcomes for students. These outcomes may expand our definition of student success—they encompass a broader range of skills or produce demonstrations of deeper knowledge, for instance—but they should not conflict with more traditional or established measures of student success, such as state assessment performance or graduation rate. In the best case, an innovative accountability pilot reveals approaches to improve our systems of monitoring and support based on clear evidence.  

Innovative Accountability Pilot: An Engine for Continuous Improvement 

We shouldn’t abandon our commitment to keep improving our accountability systems. I’m optimistic that we can better deliver on the promise of both assessment and accountability to improve outcomes for all students. We must continue to encourage innovation, while making sure the conditions are right to realize the benefits. An innovative accountability pilot that offers flexibility in return for ambitious commitments can be an important vehicle to move us forward.