Rethinking School Accountability for the 2020-2021 School Year

State and district leaders are working hard to prepare for in-person schooling in 2020-2021 while also planning for hybrid models or, at worst, full remote learning should certain locales become overwhelmed by unsustainable increases in infections and hospitalizations.

At least three states have announced their intentions to cancel statewide achievement testing next year. If approved by the U.S. Department of Education, this would obviously cause them to cancel their test-based accountability systems as well. Assessment and accountability are often conflated, and, in this case, we think that trying to cancel state assessments is focusing on the wrong issue. The statewide assessment, assuming it can be administered with some degree of fidelity, can provide useful benchmark information about student performance during these turbulent times. However, using these scores in school accountability systems—whether federally or state-mandated—during the 2020-2021 school year may lead to serious potential unintended consequences. We explain our rationale below and offer suggestions for a version of accountability that can support learning and teaching during the next school year and perhaps beyond.

Suspend Standard Accountability in 2020-2021

We are quite concerned about proceeding with a status quo version of the states’ test-based accountability systems for the 2020-2021 school year. The focus this year needs to be on maximizing students’ chances to develop rich understandings of grade-level content and not on chasing test scores. Given the likely gaps in students’ key precursor knowledge and skills, teachers and others will need to try new ways to support students in their learning. Educators and school leaders may be less willing to be patient and employ sound, evidence-based yet ambitious teaching practices that will yield long-term results if they have to worry about being held accountable for student performance on a standardized achievement test at the end of the 2020-21 school year. Moreover, disentangling the cumulative and uneven effects of the pandemic from school performance will be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Attributing outcomes to school performance is uncertain in any year, but it is simply indefensible immediately following the pandemic.

Nevertheless, we support administering the statewide achievement test to help us monitor the long-term trends in student achievement and growth next spring if we are able to administer it in such a way that we can trust the results.

Re-Envisioned Accountability for 2020-2021

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and most state accountability systems focus on schools as the unit of analysis. However, the educational challenges due to COVID-19 require a coordinated response from state, district, and school personnel. Financial support from the federal government is also critical. Therefore, it is inadvisable to make schools the only unit held accountable in this complex system. Further, accountability systems should be designed to incentivize productive educational behaviors. Some examples of such behaviors and/or documentation we want to see in the next school year include the following:

  • School districts’ plans to ensure the health and safety of students, staff, parents, and other key stakeholders, including addressing transportation, safe distancing in classrooms, health screenings, and protocols for when students and/or staff members become sick or infected.
  • Schools and districts’ research-based plans to address students’ social and emotional needs and provide evidence of successful implementation of these plans.
  • School districts’ assurances that all students, whether in-person or remote, have legitimate access to high-quality curriculum and instruction that gives students a credible opportunity to learn grade-level content.
  • States’ and districts’ evidence that all students have access to dependable internet access and devices that allow them to do their work without barriers.
  • Schools’ and districts’ assessment plans (see Connecticut’s plan for an example) prioritizing small-scale, fine-grain assessments over large-scale, survey assessments to help teachers support students move to grade-level content as quickly as possible and support the district’s approach to curriculum and instruction.
  • Finally, schools’ and districts’ evidence of what students have learned in 2020-2021 relative to grade-level standards, prioritizing statewide achievement tests, and other meaningful demonstrations of achievement.

These are just some examples. Colleagues at the Center have been offering several important ideas in this area, as seen on our COVID-19 Response Resource page, including Chris Domaleski’s recent post about new directions in accountability in light of the pandemic. State and district leaders will identify key activities, according to local values, for which states, districts, and schools should be accountable. In this case, we urge a shift from high-stakes Accountability to a focus on accountability with a little “a” where the information is transparent at all levels of the system. However, no sanctions are associated with the results. Instead, support from the state and/or district level is provided to improve the chances for students to meet grade-level expectations.

Our Take Home Message

The question is not whether we can calculate accountability results in 2021 in ways similar to before COVID. Some argue we can. We disagree because so many accountability indicators are dependent on data from the previous year. We think the important question is whether we should calculate accountability results in 2021 in ways similar to before COVID. Our answer is unequivocally no. We are not shirking accountability. Rather, we contend that to help students succeed next year, accountability in the 2020-2021 school year should focus on providing information directly related to the activities that truly matter.

Ajit Gopalakrishnan is Chief Performance Officer for the Connecticut State Department of Education