AS IS THE CASE in charter schools, many states are now working to hold all public schools accountable for education performance. Accountability, as interpreted by policymakers, teachers and parents, often means different things to different people. The Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown has defined accountability as encompassing five related elements:
1. Agreed-upon high standards that offer direction to curriculum and instruction, provide benchmarks by which to measure student progress, and make explicit the goal of reducing disparities among groups of students.
2. A variety of rigorous assessment instruments (from standardized tests to portfolios of student work and anecdotal evidence) that enable school communities to document individual student progress as well as achievement across classes and schools.
3. Distributed responsibility for high-quality education among all stakeholders (not only teachers, administrators, and school boards but also parents, community members, policy makers, businesses, and universities).
4. Access to conditions and resources such as strong leadership, skillful instruction, adequate finances, time for collaboration and reflection, and openness to community involvement.
5. A system for the continuous and reflective use of data which allows school communities to examine their practices, formulate questions, reflect on intended outcomes, and take action to improve learning within a school culture that values continuous improvement.
In the broadest sense, though, accountability boils down to developing clear, agreed upon standards for gauging the relative success of student performance, and the ability to affect change in schools when the level of success does not measure up. The first goal, standards development, has been examined in detail in the previous section of this report. National standards have been developed in most major subject areas and the vast majority of states have begun to implement their own standards programs. These standards will in large part form the basis for judging what students are expected to learn.
As difficult a challenge standards development has been to date, perhaps the greater challenge will be found in assessment methods for measuring whether students are indeed meeting the benchmarks set by state and national standards. Assessment is proving to be a contentious debate among both politicians and education policy specialists. A significant segment of policy makers has insisted that assessment can be accomplished by state and national standardized tests. Standardized tests have been used for decades as a way of judging student skill levels at various points in their education.
Critics, however, worry that the "common sense approach" of issuing more standardized tests will miss their mark if the tests themselves do not become broader in form and function. For example, tests must go beyond the common multiple choice evaluation method and include essay problems and other questions that allow the students to demonstrate their ability to write and organize their thoughts. Similarly, portfolio assessment may be a more accurate way to judge students' work over an extended period of time. By requiring students to keep a portfolio of everything they have produced over a period of time and judging the portfolio as a whole, many educators believe it is possible to attain a stronger sense of whether they have reached the standards benchmarks. Vermont has moved to portfolio assessment of its fourth and eighth graders, and California is beginning to experiment with them as well. But portfolio critics argue that portfolios are too subjective and require an inordinate amount of time to assess. The debate over standardized tests and portfolios will undoubtedly continue for some time.
I'd like to examine other reform styles.