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Next Generation Accountability: An Overview

The nation’s young people deserve an education system that is worthy of their aspirations.

Yet, without an effective accountability system, it is all but impossible to determine if the education system is equipping students with the skills and knowledge they need to succeed in our rapidly changing world. When well-designed, accountability systems do more than shine a spotlight on the performance of all students, particularly those who have been historically marginalized. They also create incentives for state, school district, and school leaders to act in ways that reflect our priorities. And, critically, they provide a mechanism through which additional resources can be provided to districts, schools, and students with the greatest needs.  

Accountability systems should guide lawmakers in addressing historical inequities by leveraging disaggregated data to create policies and programs tailored to where support is most needed. Without data that specifically identifies how our education system is serving marginalized students, including students of color, students with disabilities, students learning English, and students from low-income families, lawmakers in too many states are not able to meet their promise to be good fiscal stewards and adept representatives of their constituents. Accountability systems should also drive resources and support toward places where our current system is not successfully serving students. Unfortunately, evidence suggests some state systems may overlook considerable numbers of low-performing students and schools.  

Despite the challenges facing our education system, recent survey data shows that this generation of students is hopeful. In one survey of young people aged 18 to 35, over 60 percent of participants believed they had a better opportunity than their parents to get a great education and nearly three-quarters (74%) believed they have a good chance of achieving their version of the American Dream for themselves. We need state accountability systems that meet this generation of students where they are and recognize the diversity, complexity, and changing nature of our schools and world.  

Doing so means state accountability systems need to broaden their aspirations—leaving no group of students or schools overlooked, providing significant resources to support all students’ goals and needs, and prioritizing preparation for postsecondary education and the workforce. Today, four in five good jobs require at least some postsecondary education or training. High school graduation rates are historically high; however, college enrollment rates and college completion rates are persistently low, especially for historically marginalized students. Such a serious disconnect between K–12 schooling and postsecondary education is alarming.  

To address this disconnect, state education leaders have been working on policies to help students graduate from high school prepared for postsecondary options, including new data reporting and accountability indicators. Specifically, 36 states include college-ready measures (e.g., earning dual credits) and 35 states include career-ready measures (e.g., earning an industry credential) in their readiness indicators. However, there is wide variation in the ways states measure college and career readiness and the effectiveness of many of these measures is questionable.  

As we strive to provide students with an education that prepares them for a future they will shape, we must reform our accountability systems to ensure equity, prioritize excellence, and foster continuous improvement. All4Ed presents a set of policy proposals that empower state policymakers to enact meaningful changes and build a more inclusive, forward-looking education system. 

Ensuring All Students Count:

Our education system is only effective if it is effective for all students. But the only way to know if it is effective for all students is for all students to be included in the accountability system. States must set a minimum number of students to be used when disaggregating data for the purpose of reporting student performance to the public and identifying schools for support. This number, commonly referred to as the “n-size,” must be large enough to avoid revealing personally identifiable information about students and yield statistically reliable information. However, it should also be small enough to ensure the performance of students who have been historically marginalized is fully represented in states’ systems for accountability and reporting.  

States have chosen to set their n-size as low as five students and as high as 30. By selecting a low n-size, many states have been able to make their accountability systems more equitable by increasing the number of schools held accountable for the results of individual student groups, even if the school has smaller enrollment numbers. For example, by selecting an n-size of 20 instead of 30, one state increased the number of schools included in its accountability system based on individual student group data by 653, an increase of nearly 10%. As a result, parents and the public have richer information about student performance at the schools, including potential gaps in achievement, progress, graduation, and readiness, and these schools can access additional resources to support school improvement. An effective accountability system will have an n-size as low as five in order to include data on as many students as possible and provide them with support as needed.  

School Ratings Mean School Support:

Most states use a rating system to differentiate schools and inform the public about school performance. In many states, however, schools can receive a low rating without being identified for support. Critically, this means those schools are ineligible for federal school improvement funding and additional resources their students likely need.  

All4Ed analyzed accountability systems across 10 states and found the likelihood a school was identified for support varied widely. Some states identified half, or more, of the public schools they serve, while others identified fewer than 5%. While some states ensured that the lowest-rated schools were consistently identified for support, other states made choices that resulted in low-rated schools being overlooked. As a result, students in low-performing schools—who are much more likely to be students of color or from low-income families—in different states have very different odds of receiving the support they need to improve. For example, in one state, 43% of the schools that received an “F” were not identified for support and, therefore, were not eligible for school improvement funding. In that state, Black students were 17 times more likely to attend an “F” school than White students. 

States can improve their accountability systems by reviewing their data to determine whether schools receiving low ratings are being overlooked for support and analyzing their performance as well as the resources made available to them (e.g., per-pupil expenditure, presence of school counselors, access to advanced coursework, etc.). Based on this information, lawmakers can determine if new or additional policies are needed to ensure students in schools with the lowest rating receive appropriate support and interventions to improve. 

Rewarding Readiness:

Given the importance of preparing students for success in our dynamic and changing world, most states now incorporate indicators of college and career readiness into their accountability systems; however, there is wide variation in the quality of measures they use. For example, the percentage of students enrolling in postsecondary education is greater than the percentage of students deemed college- and career-ready in 34 states. In other words, many states undermeasure college and career readiness, especially for students of color. To address this, states can use a combination of indicators that include actual evidence of college and career readiness, such as postsecondary enrollment and remediation rates. Postsecondary education and workforce outcomes data should be used to demonstrate whether students’ high school experiences actually resulted in postsecondary success. 

In addition, some states prioritize either college readiness or career readiness, rather than adopting an integrated approach that emphasizes both. For instance, 34 states incorporate both college-ready and career-ready measures into their education systems, and 13 of them also measure students’ readiness for the military. However, most states do not expect students to demonstrate readiness for college coursework if they opt for a career- or military-ready option, and vice versa. An effective accountability system should encompass a blend of measures, giving equal importance to both college and career readiness, rather than favoring one over the other. 

Finally, states should recognize that some measures of college and career readiness are stronger predictors of success than others. However, most college and career readiness indicators treat each measure the same—whether or not it is backed by stronger evidence that completing that measure improves students’ abilities to succeed in postsecondary education and work. For example, earning college credit through dual enrollment may be treated similarly to participating in an Advanced Placement (AP) course (even if the student did not do well enough on the AP exam to earn college credit). States can more effectively measure and promote college and career readiness by using an index that: 

  • includes measures of college readiness and measures of career readiness; 
  • includes measures that demonstrate readiness, such as college enrollment and remediation rates, rather than relying solely on measures that predict readiness, such as success in advanced coursework; and  
  • prioritizes measures backed by the strongest evidence of leading to postsecondary success; 
  • and prioritizes the integration of college career readiness. 

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