Through-Year Assessment: A Radical Renegotiation of the School Accountability Contract
Adding Test Sessions to the Year Reduces Schools’ Period of Performance
More than a dozen states have implemented or are considering through-year assessment as an alternative to testing at the end of the year for school accountability purposes. In a through-year model, the assessment program is administered in multiple distinct tests throughout the school year, instead of as a single end-of-year test. We argue that through-year assessment rewrites the implicit “accountability contract” between a state and its schools.
How a New Assessment Model Changes the School Accountability Contract
It can be helpful to frame school accountability as an implicit contract between two parties: the school and the state. Unlike most contracts, neither states nor their schools freely enter into or negotiate the terms governing their relationship under accountability systems. Instead, the terms are established through federal law (currently the Every Student Succeeds Act), and each state devises a plan that meets the law. Importantly for this implicit contract, the law requires states to measure key outcomes and provide targeted or comprehensive support to schools not meeting targets on those outcomes.
By its nature, federally mandated school accountability establishes a relationship in which one party (the state) grants autonomy of means to the other (schools). In turn, the school promises results on key outcomes, or deliverables, dictated by the state based on federal law. The state verifies those deliverables annually. If the school does not deliver, it receives state-determined support to help it provide better results in the future. This relationship is the contract.
Moving to a through-year assessment program renegotiates this contract. When a state adopts a through-year assessment program, it essentially says that some aspect of the contract is unsatisfactory and needs to change.
An Unprecedented Change in Schools’ Period of Performance
All contracts involving deliverables have a period of performance. Typically, a formal inspection occurs at the end of this period to ascertain that the deliverables meet quality criteria. Of course, the two parties involved often agree to informal reviews before the end of the contract. These reviews help to determine if things are on track and if they are not, point the way, ideally, to improvements.
With federally required school accountability systems, the period of performance is an academic year; that is, schools have a year to help their students attain proficiency targets. Through-year assessment programs assess academic performance throughout the year. These within-year assessments could be seen as informal inspections.
In concrete terms, such informal inspections should play no part in determining the extent to which a school achieved its student proficiency goals. As soon as results from within-year assessments play a role in judging school performance—in producing summative determinations—what was informal becomes formal, and the period of performance is, in effect, reduced.
When this happens, through-year assessment represents a substantial, unprecedented change in the accountability contract. It is unprecedented because reducing schools’ windows of time for fulfilling their side of the contract has not been a feature of previous assessment innovation proposals as popular as through-year.
Does the period of performance need to be reduced? Does within-year information serve the state or the public in ways that justify this reduction?
One straightforward answer might be that end-of-year inspections are insufficient to fulfill the current accountability contract. Some might argue that the state educational agency (SEA), or the public it represents, has an interest in within-year markers of achievement or progress to improve the state system of identification and support.
No through-year proposal we know of has explicitly made this claim. If an SEA were to do so, it would need to provide milestones for schools to achieve at each within-year testing opportunity. Moreover, schools and the public would likely expect state agencies to follow up with the other side of accountability—supports and interventions—more frequently than once a year.
In the extreme case, states may need to establish academic content standards and achievement levels for subdivisions of tested grades—for example, the first half of 6th grade. Their school accountability offices would operate on near-continuous schedules to generate school scores and provide support and intervention services, stretching these agencies’ resources.
A Door-Opener to Accountability Renegotiations
In practice, not all through-year assessment programs or proposals use within-year results to render a summative determination. However, inserting a state assessment within the school year makes it feasible for those programs to do so. At least one such state, Florida, has a legal mandate to explore the feasibility of using its within-year assessments for summative determinations.
Even through-year assessment programs that do not use within-year results still involve renegotiations of the accountability contract. Some of the changes states want to see arise from the needs of other stakeholders, such as teachers. One often-cited motivation, for example, is that state summative assessment should provide better information to support instruction.
In this scenario, the state is now responsible for producing, in part, information that supports instruction during the year. This renegotiation is more subtle, but still important, and reflects a substantial shift in the role of the state and its summative assessment program.
If a state is going to change its contract with schools by embracing through-year, it will have to secure buy-in for this change. And with any contract, authentic buy-in comes from each party voicing its needs and exercising its agency in formulating the resulting agreement. Representatives of a state’s school community need to be at the bargaining table for that to happen.
States typically elicit stakeholder feedback on assessment or other initiatives through surveys and focus groups. And while these methods are valuable, they are no substitute for engaging representatives of those stakeholders to negotiate the terms of an agreement. The bargaining table is where trade-offs become real as parties make concessions and reach a shared understanding.
Sponsors of reforms such as through-year assessment will need to engage stakeholders so that the totality of the innovation is up for discussion, not just parts of it, in isolation. Schools and teachers, for example, should have a say in how within-year assessment results will figure into accountability, in addition to how they will support instructional uses (if any).
Pursuing the Public Policy Case for Through-Year Assessment
Through-year assessment—understood as a system of within-year tests that potentially count toward students’ proficiency determinations for school accountability—represents a radical renegotiation of the implicit contract between a state and its schools.
Through-year programs differ significantly from conventional end-of-year testing in that they reduce schools’ period of performance. This reduction has implications not only for the creation of annual summative determinations, but also for other aspects of the state-school relationship, including who is responsible for producing information to support ongoing instruction.
Is there a public policy case for this reduction? If there is, negotiations acknowledging each party’s interests and needs would preserve their agency, clear the table for concessions, and promote buy-in. Whether through listening sessions, focus groups, workshops, or a combination of these, reaching an agreement that addresses the interests of each party today is the best way to avoid running up against them tomorrow.