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ACCOUNTABILITY IN THE “FIFTY-FIRST” STATE: Alliance Holds Major Event Focused on Rethinking Accountability to Support College and Career Readiness

“It is desirable and it is possible for us to begin to create a new accountability system that can do more than what we’ve done to this point.”

AssessmentBriefingOn October 16, the Alliance for Excellent Education hosted a major event on a broader vision of accountability to support higher and deeper levels of learning for all students as well as greater flexibility for schools and districts. The event featured the release of two new reports that present a new model of accountability for an imaginary “fifty-first” state and spotlight reforms and innovations that states and districts are already implementing around new accountability models.

In opening the discussion, Gene Wilhoit, executive director of the National Center for Innovation in Education, described what he called an “exciting transformation” underway in the United States around the higher standards now adopted in every state. Under these college- and career-ready standards, students must exhibit deeper learning competencies, including the ability to think critically and creatively, communicate in multiple forms, collaborate, and reflect on their own learning. He stressed that students cannot meet the expectations associated with the new standards without a very different teaching and learning process.

Describing the first report released at the event, Accountability for College and Career Readiness: Developing a New Paradigm, jointly issued by the Stanford Center for Opportunity Policy in Education (SCOPE) and the Center for Innovation in Education at the University of Kentucky, Wilhoit said the primary goal of a new accountability system must be to improve teaching and learning in all schools while providing tools for continuous improvement and a means for identifying and addressing problems that require correction. “It is desirable and it is possible for us to begin to create a new accountability system that can do more than what we’ve done to this point.”

Wilhoit said the accountability system envisioned in report rests on three components: a focus on meaningful learning that is enabled by skilled and committed professionals and supported by adequate and appropriate resources. He said such a system would produce continuous system improvement—not just test scores—and be reciprocal, with each level of the system taking responsibility for the contributions it must make to serve each child well. It would focus on meaningful learning for college, careers, and citizenship, using more valid and authentic assessments, reported in disaggregated form, and ensure adequate resources were allocated intelligently to meet student needs. Such a system would develop and ensure professional capacity and accountability and use multiple measures. It would focus on system capacity building and shift from a “test-and-rank” approach to an “assess-support-and-improve” model while reflecting ongoing input from students, parents, educators, and communities and providing transparent and accessible information to the public.

In describing a system of assessments to support accountability, Wilhoit stressed the need for a range of assessments, including rich local assessments and state tests designed to validate local results, that are connected to curriculum, instruction, and professional development in a productive teaching and learning system.

Following Wilhoit, Linda Darling-Hammond, Stanford Professor and Faculty Director of SCOPE, discussed how the accountability system envisioned in the report could be constructed in an imaginary “fifty-first state” by borrowing individual elements from accountability systems already in place in states like Kentucky, Maine, New Hampshire, and others, as well as countries such as Canada and Australia. One interesting element she described was a digital portfolio of students’ work that would include students’ transcripts, grade-point-averages, short essays, and video clips that could be shared with colleges. She said the digital portfolio was a way of “blending rich information about learning with easily absorbable efficient information about learning.”

Moving from the imaginary fifty-first state to what is actually happening in the fifty U.S. states, Stephen Bowen, strategic initiative director for innovation at the Council of Chief State School Officers, and Carmel Martin, executive vice president for policy at the Center for American Progress, discussed Next Generation Accountability Systems: An Overview of Current State Policies and Practices, a new report authored jointly by their organizations that explores how new approaches to accountability are being pioneered by some states. It finds that states are “actively creating and implementing new ways to advance accountability systems that provide the resources necessary for system improvement while holding all stakeholders accountable for student success” and categorizes current state reform efforts into five broad areas: (1) measuring progress toward college and career readiness; (2) diagnosing and responding to challenges via school-based quality improvement; (3) state systems of support and intervention; (4) resource accountability; and (5) professional accountability.

The report also identifies barriers that states, districts, and schools must address, including transitioning to new assessments, developing richer measures of student and school success, staffing school improvement teams, creating resources accountability systems, and strengthening the teaching profession. It cautions policymakers developing accountability reforms to “give considerable thought to system coherence across all five areas, rather than targeting one area in isolation.”

During a question-and-answer session, Wilhoit, Darling-Hammond, Bowen, and Martin addressed questions from moderator N. Gerry House, president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Student Achievement, regarding how to bring to scale accountability innovations in individual states, key barriers to doing so, and how some of the United States’s international peers were able to develop advanced accountability systems not just at a state level, but at the country level.

The final component of the event was a panel discussion of school, district, and state education leaders who described their system’s unique approach to accountability and the benefits and challenges associated with it. It featured S. Dallas Dance, superintendent of Baltimore County Public Schools; Lara Evangelista, principal of Flushing International High School in New York; Paul Leather, deputy commissioner of education for the New Hampshire Department of Education; and Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, who discussed the importance of accountability systems to closing achievement gaps and ensuring that every student has access to an equitable education.

Archived video from the event and links to the two reports are available at

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