Check Out Our Latest Book: Common Ground on Common Core

Order Now!

Resounding Books Newsletter

List of Articles
Privacy Policy
Paid for by Resounding Books PAC
© Copyright 2015
|A| 619 South Main Street, Box 418 / DeForest, WI 53532
|P| 608 467 0877

August 27, 2015 - Making the Grade: The Ruse of Accountability-Based Grades

If the last several decades should have taught us anything, it’s that education initiatives are filled with misleading use of language. We count on words to mean certain things. We have particular understandings of given concepts. But education reformers—whether they’re government officials, corporate executives, or other special-interest representatives—sometimes mean something entirely different by those same words and concepts. Furthermore, those reformers frequently rely on such gaps in understanding to advance their agendas and keep them in place.

In order to understand this problem better, we’ve chosen an education-related term, "accountability," that’s currently misleading large swaths of the population. We’ll consider what most people understand it to mean, some of the reasons its generally understood meaning should now be suspect, and how reformers have kept people believing we’re all still talking about the same thing.

The Meaning of “Accountability”

When we spoke with her, Marsha Familaro Enright earlier this year, she immediately honed in on problems around the use of the word educational “standards.” On inspection, “accountability” is another prime example of a word/concept that has been used in deeply misleading ways.

The Federal Government is increasingly committed to accountability objectives. States across the nation appear gung-ho to build new accountability systems or enhance and strengthen existing ones. Money is flowing to achieve these ends. But what should we understand by this now-ubiquitous term?

When we think of accountability in relationship to education, most of us tend to infer two principle items or angles. First, we assume that accountability encompasses a duty to parents, who have entrusted their children to professional others for the purpose of ensuring they receive a good education. Second, we immediately understand it to mean a responsibility to taxpayers, whose money funds the public education system that most children attend. In both cases, there tends to be an additional and implicit assumption on the part of the average person that the goal of accountability is to provide some sort of assurance that children are receiving a solid academic grounding.

These assumptions are crucial, because they form the foundation for a whole structure of subsequent assumptions that may or may not actually be correct, including why we’ve built accountability systems, how they function, what they measure, who they assist, and what they yield.

The most obvious public manifestation of these efforts is the assignment of letter grades (or, in some states, numbered or starred rankings) to teachers, schools, and school districts. Ostensibly, these grades provide transparency into the education system, allowing us to see who is and is not achieving academic success.

But is transparency really the goal of these accountability systems? And is academic success what they actually measure?

Problems of Validity

In most states today, accountability systems depend heavily on student performance on standardized assessments—in particular assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) and its rebranded cousins. This reality poses particular problems of validity. The reasons for these problems are manifold, but we’ll list just a few.

  1. The disconnected, limited, and standardized nature of these assessments makes them a poor means of evaluating a child’s comprehensive learning experience or capabilities.
  2. That same nature likewise prohibits standardized assessments from revealing to any great degree or with much accuracy the performance or "value added" by the teacher in the classroom
  3. Student performance on standardized assessment has been extensively shown over time to correlate to little more than socioeconomic status, with children in challenged neighborhoods or communities tending not to perform as well.
  4. Despite all claims to the contrary, standard assessments aligned to CCSS, in particular, have not been properly validated.

There is extensive evidence for each of these assertions. We encourage readers to verify for themselves. However, the last point should be of special note; CCSS and aligned assessments were heavily marketed as being something they were not. Certainly, Dr. Sandra Stotsky's Common Ground on Common Core essay, "An Invalid Validation of the Common Core Standards," exposes much in relationship to point four. In addition, statements by two of CCSS’s most vigorous proponents, when taken together should raise the eyebrow of anyone paying attention.

In July 2009, speaking before the National Council of State Legislators, a private trade organization, Bill Gates—who has, through his private foundation, donated more to the development and advancement of CCSS than any other single person or entity—stated:

Fortunately, the state-led Common Core State Standards Initiative is developing clear, rigorous common standards that match the best in the world. Last month, 46 Governors and Chief State School Officers made a public commitment to embrace these common standards.

This is encouraging—but identifying common standards is not enough. We’ll know we’ve succeeded when the curriculum and the tests are aligned to these standards.

Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that $350 million of the stimulus package will be used to create just these kinds of tests—next-generation assessments aligned to the common core.

CCSS, then, had been adopted by nearly every state in the union before the standards were even complete, much less any aligned assessments fully developed, piloted, and properly validated. There was no way to verify whether the standards or the assessments were good or bad, beneficial or damaging—and just as importantly, valid or invalid.

Underscoring this point, in February 2013—nearly three years after most states had formally agreed to adopt CCSS, with deployment of those standards well underway, and after full-on assessment had already begun in early implementation states such as New York and Kentucky—Jason Zimba, one of the primary architects of the CCSS math standards concluded an interview with EdWeek’s Rick Hess, noting:

[W]ith so many states now working toward the same goals, there should be an opportunity to gather more research data than we've been able to in the past. The assessment consortia can also greatly enlarge our knowledge base about what does and doesn't matter for postsecondary success. So in the best view of this, I think we're taking our first halting steps toward a functioning feedback loop with student achievement at the center.

Quite simply, Zimba let the cat out of the bag, here. Despite what the public and their representatives may have understood through the vast public relations campaign around CCSS, neither the standards nor any of the aligned assessments being produced by the two federally approved assessment consortia (PARCC and SBAC) had been properly validated. They were only now, Zimba acknowledged, in the process of being validated through vast experimentation and data collection. In no sense could these assessments then—or now—honestly be labeled as scientifically or clinically valid.

The Ruse of Letter Grades

That brings us back to our original question: What does the word “accountability” actually signify in education today?

If states are building accountability systems largely around assessments that possess neither the structure nor the demonstrated validity to measure what is claimed, then neither can accountability, as it is currently being framed in most states, supply the transparency into the education system that we’re being told.

Data is clearly being gathered, calculations are being made, and grades are being assigned. But to what end? Performance of some sort is evidently being measured, but, on examination, the evidence plainly suggests it’s not academic performance.

What’s going on here…?

In his essay in Common Ground on Common Core, data scientist and education activist Jeffrey D. Horn provides some compelling insights. Writes Horn in “Learning with Leviathan: Objectification, Surveillance, and Control in a Concealed Command Economy”:

[M]any states are now using performance on assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards, combined with adherence to similarly aligned curricula, to create single letter grades that indicate whether teachers, schools, and districts measure up. If they don’t, sanctions guarantee intervention or elimination. Letter grades also facilitate public buy-in to accountability measures. A simple label assigned to teacher, school, or district—something familiar that most people think they understand—signals a merited reward or sanction. If a teacher receives a poor grade, most people will assume the teacher to be a problem and not examine other factors—for example, the system within which the teacher must operate. These grades essentially become scarlet letters, borne first and foremost by educators. Not that it stops with them. Common standards permit schools, districts, and even states to be monitored, compared...and “corrected.”

In reality, then, accountability appears to function as a lever to ensure that students, teachers, schools, and districts comply with the wishes of those currently driving our increasingly centralized, standardized education system.

Regardless, of the fact that they amount to a ruse perpetrated on the public, the “grades” that accountability systems deliver to teachers, schools, and districts have all-to-real consequences for those who fail to meet criteria. Grades that reflect poor compliance can cost teachers raises or even jobs, result in the sanctioning of a district and may include school closings or takeovers, falling property values, and damaged reputations for neighborhoods and municipalities.

Will we continue to fall for the accountability hoax and the letter grades by which its perpetrated on the public? Or will we finally reject out-of-hand a model designed to reinforce a centralized, standardized model of education that is hurting children, parents, teachers, and taxpayers alike?

The restoration of true accountability to parents and taxpayers at the local level—accountability that involves real, open, honest, and productive conversations with the teachers actually tasked with delivering education—is long overdue.

404 Not Found

" data-layout="standard" data-action="like" data-show-faces="true" data-share="true">

Print Content