A Principled Approach to Accountability in 2022

Feb 16, 2022

Four Principles to Guide State Decisions about ESSA Accountability Systems

A large part of the work my colleagues and I do at the Center is focused on helping our clients solve hard problems. This year I’ve encountered one of the thorniest problems I’ve seen in my career. Stated simply, what should states do about federally required school accountability in 2022? When deliberating about a new challenge, we sometimes quip, “if there was an easy answer, we probably wouldn’t be involved.” Although there are seldom easy or perfect solutions to hard problems, we always work to help states take a principled approach to finding the best solution for their situation. 

The Challenge for Accountability in 2022

Even if state assessments are back on track in 2022, which is far from certain, most states have some missing data and/or data that is less reliable than usual from 2021, and no data from 2020 due to pandemic-related disruptions. What’s more, there is a lot of variability in conditions among and within states. Some states had high participation rates in 2021, others had very low participation (i.e., less than 30%). Even for states with fairly high participation, these rates differed significantly by district and school. School accountability systems rely heavily on data from previous years for many important reasons, especially calculating academic growth, prominent in nearly every state system.

Unfortunately, however, it appears that the U.S. Department of Education is offering states very little flexibility to deviate from the school accountability requirements in the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). My colleagues and I more fully describe the challenges of operating within federal constraints here. I also recommend Scott Marion’s excellent post on this topic, which led him to conclude that accountability needs to be revised, not restarted.  

Assuming states are not able to get a waiver from federal requirements in 2022, they are left to find a solution to create a trustworthy school accountability system that meets ESSA requirements. As I said, no easy problems. 

A Principled Approach 

I confess that I don’t have easy answers to these accountability challenges. There is no single or simple answer. Every state will need to develop a solution that fits its circumstances and priorities. However, I share an approach I use when faced with particularly challenging problems and elaborate with some suggestions that apply to the current context.   

When I encounter a problem, I often step back and develop some principles or criteria that should characterize an acceptable solution. Many people do this for issues both trivial (e.g., Where should I order take-out tonight?) and consequential (e.g., What college should I attend?). Developing principles helps narrow the options and evaluate potential solutions.   

Based on many conversations with state leaders this year, four principles I think should influence decisions about ESSA accountability systems in 2022 have emerged.

Principle 1: Minimize the Long-term Influence of ‘Fragile’ Indicators 

For most states, there is probably no way to avoid using some imperfect data in their 2022 accountability system. When compelled to use more fragile indicators in the accountability system, such as those based on data that are less reliable or less representative compared to a typical year, consider how to mitigate their influence for consequential decisions. Some examples include: 

  • Reduce the weight and/or adjust performance thresholds for some indicators.
  • Adopt shorter-term classification cycles (e.g., 1 year instead of 3 years) in order to revisit the decision sooner with better data.
  • Eschew potentially disruptive or restrictive sanctions. 

Principle 2: Prioritize Utility     

When evaluating accountability design alternatives, it’s important to ask, “How does this decision help education leaders understand and support the needs of students and schools, particularly for the most disenfranchised students?” For example, replacing academic growth with another status measure (e.g., science proficiency) simply because you have the data available will likely do little to help understand the academic performance of underserved students and may obscure the picture by magnifying the influence of an existing, coarse status indicator; one that is highly correlated with socioeconomic status. 

This utility principle is always important but is even more important this year when the focus must be on providing data to help schools support academic recovery for massive numbers of students. Application of this principle may open the door to consider more novel approaches.    

Principle 3: Don’t Overload Your ESSA Accountability System

Obviously, a state’s ESSA accountability system is not the only tool to understand and support students and schools. In fact, overloading the ESSA system could be counterproductive. For example, some districts and schools will find value in using results from local assessments to inform instructional priorities. However, attempting to incorporate these measures into the state school accountability system would impose constraints that would likely inhibit their instructional utility. 

Ultimately, many states may conclude that the best ESSA accountability solution for 2022 is one that is as streamlined as possible.  

Principle 4: When in Doubt, Support 

As noted, missing and less reliable data will create more uncertainty in decisions about school classifications in 2022. In the face of such uncertainty, it may be best to err on the side of deploying supports to schools, particularly when those supports are widely available and non-restrictive as discussed more fully in a previous post. Such supports may already be contemplated through Elementary and Secondary School Emergency Relief (ESSER) funded initiatives.  

Application of this principle suggests states should set a high bar for discontinuing support, based on complete and compelling evidence. Additionally, states may elect to establish multiple tiers of support.  

Final Thoughts

There are no easy answers for ESSA school accountability systems in 2022. And it is likely that every alternative will have some limitations. In the face of such challenging circumstances, education leaders should work closely with stakeholders and advisors to find a solution that best fits their priorities and circumstances. Developing a clear set of principles or criteria to help evaluate the options, can serve as a touchstone as states identify promising solutions and evaluate potential implementation.