How Should We Gauge Student Success? The Accountability Dilemma

Cross-posted at Education Week

My organization is currently advising a state on a comprehensive state education reform plan based on the strategies used by those countries with the most successful education systems.  At a statewide meeting a couple of weeks ago, I was asked how I would define success if such a plan were implemented.

A fair question.  In the first instance, I said I would be happy if the average student achievement in the state as measured by a state score on the OECD PISA tests of reading, mathematics, problem-solving and science was as high as the average performance of the students in the top ten countries on the PISA league tables and if the difference in performance between the bottom tenth of scorers and the top tenth was no larger than in the top ten performers on that metric.

Achieving these levels of quality and equity would surely be an outcome to celebrate.  But I said I would not stop there.  I would want to be sure that attendance rates and completion rates in high school were at least as high for our students as for those in the top-performing countries.  And I would want the cost per student to get these outcomes to be competitive, too.

But I want much more than that.  I want graduates who have a good command of the great sweep of history, who not only know what happened at critical junctures in history but who understand the interplay of factors that produced those turning points and can draw from that understanding of history the implications for the conflicts and choices the United States must now deal with.  I want students who understand how and why liberty and freedom developed in some societies and not others, how fragile that achievement can be and what it takes to preserve freedom and democratic government when it is under attack.  I want students who are not only familiar with the greatest works of art that humans have ever created, but have also gained the skills needed to create art and play music themselves.  I want students who are good not just at solving problems someone else has defined for them, but who can frame problems for themselves in forms that make those problems solvable.  I want graduates who will take the initiative and get it done without the need of detailed supervision.  I want students who are good team members and good leaders.  I want students who know the difference between right and wrong and who will do what is right whether or not anyone is looking.  I want students who can think for themselves, who can think out of the box, who can look at a complex problem and solve it by bringing to bear an angle of vision on that problem that is fresh and original.  I want graduates who are eager to learn from others but not cowed by authority.  I want graduates who are not afraid to be wrong, but who work hard at getting it right.  I want students who are not only tolerant of others who are different but who value those differences.  I want graduates who set high standards for themselves and never give up until they reach them.  I want students who are ambitious but will stop to help others who need help.  I want graduates who think of themselves not as consumers but as contributors.


This is not a complete list.  My point in creating it is not to lay out a full menu but to make a point.  The point is very simple.  High achievement in reading, writing, mathematics, science and problem solving is essential.  Students who leave high school lacking in these essentials represent a profound failure to educate.  We have an obligation to hold educators who fail to educate students against those metrics accountable for that failure.  That is what the accountability movement is all about.

But success on these metrics does not mean that we have met our obligations to these students.  Not at all.  Because these metrics measure only a small part of what we really care about, or ought to care about.

That is the dilemma of high stakes accountability systems.  It seems rather stark.  By using high stakes accountability systems to put great pressure on teachers to improve student scores on tests of reading, mathematics and science, we communicate that we do not care about any of the other goals we have in mind.  That is a very foolish policy.

On the other hand, if we forego high stakes testing, or make it optional for schools and districts, as many would now have us do, we communicate that we are quite comfortable with the outcome if school districts and states choose to do nothing if students do not achieve very much in any arena.  That, too, is unacceptable.

Unfortunately, we have very poor measures for many of the outcomes on my list of goals for students.  So it is not simply a matter of adding measures to the measures we already use for high stakes testing.

We could, of course, ask our teachers to use their judgment to assess students on the longer list of desirable outcomes.  But that would require that we trust our teachers to make honest and accurate judgments.

But we evidently don’t trust our teachers.  If we did, we would not have one of the very few national accountability systems in the world that places high stakes on the teachers, not the students.

How can we get out of this mess?  If we look at the countries with the highest performance on PISA, the answer emerges. The nations that exhibit the greatest trust in their teachers are the nations that have made the greatest effort to improve the quality of their teachers.  Those first-rate teachers have—predictably—produced the highest student achievement in the world.  The citizens of those countries trust their teachers because they see that their students are global top performers.

No one is going to trust their teachers because they are exhorted to trust their teachers.  They trust their teachers because they see that they are worthy of their trust.  They are worthy of that trust because they are highly competent.  They are highly competent because, in those countries, teachers are paid well, their hard work and competence is rewarded by access to career ladders in which hard work and competence is rewarded, they are recruited from among the top high school graduates in their country, they are very well educated and trained and they are provided with professional conditions of work once they are in the teaching profession.  The acid test: teachers in the top-performing countries stay in teaching three to four times longer than teachers in the United States.

The United States has responded to poor student performance by instituting draconian high-stakes accountability systems that create very strong incentives for teachers to teach only a small portion of what they should be teaching and, indeed, want to teach.  The great irony here is that, since these high-stakes accountability systems were introduced, there has been no improvement in student performance at the high school level in the things the high-stakes tests measure, while, at the same time, there is every reason to believe that our students are doing far worse on the important things we should be measuring but are not measuring.

That is a terrible deal for our children and our country.