Because Congress passed the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) last December, states are revamping their federally required systems to measure school quality and hold schools accountable for performance. But most are doing so using outdated assumptions, holdovers from the Industrial Era, when cookiecutter public schools followed orders from central headquarters and students were assigned to the closest school. Today we are migrating toward systems of diverse, fairly autonomous schools of choice, some of them operated by independent organizations. Before revising their measurement and accountability systems, states need to rethink their assumptions.
For instance, most states have assumed that they should apply one standardized, statewide accountability system to almost all public schools. Most have also assumed that measurement and accountability systems are roughly the same thing, so the only aspects of performance they need to measure are those in their federally-required accountability systems. Under the old No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act, most of those measures were standardized test scores, and what counted was the percentage of students scoring “proficient” or better. When schools repeatedly failed to meet such standards, most states assumed the proper response was someminor form of restructuring required by NCLB—perhaps a new principal, perhaps some new teachers, perhaps some new money.
None of these assumptions will produce the schools our children need in the 21st century. NCLB was an important step in its time, institutionalizing an expectation that states would hold schools accountable for the learning of all their children, including the poor, minorities, and those with special needs. But it relied on the fairly blunt tools used by most states back in 2001: primarily achievement scores on standardized math and reading tests. In the intervening 15 years, more tools
have become available—and even more are the subject of intense research today. Fortunately, the ESSA has opened the door to these new approaches.