The Maze of Educational Accountability

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Nearly half of schools in New York were recently recognized by the state Education Department as high performers. Why that was so was not immediately clear from the news coverage of the event.

Most of the stories repeated the language from the Ed Department’s news release. The schools were designated, they said, “for meeting all applicable state standards and showing adequate yearly progress in English and math for two years.”

OK, but what are the state standards, and what constitutes “adequate yearly progress”? I decided to find out. Now I understand why the reporters didn’t bother trying to explain the answers in the space allotted by their newspapers.

It took me most of a day to make any sense at all of the state’s educational accountability system, and I have some background in this area as a former education reporter. I discovered a maze of bureaucratic jargon, complete with a few mathematical formulas adding to the confusion. Here’s what I learned:

The state standards have to do with the percent of students passing tests in math and English, but it’s not nearly that simple. Students fall into one of four levels based on their performance on the state tests, from “not meeting standards” (level 1) to “meeting standards with distinction” (level 4). The top two levels, 3 and 4, are considered to be meeting standards.

But years ago, the state decided to give schools some credit for students scoring at level 2 (“partially meeting standards”). So to calculate its “performance index,” the state adds the percentage of students scoring at levels 3 and 4 to the percentage scoring at levels 2, 3 and 4, then multiplies by a 100. That’s our first formula – did you follow it?

The top possible index is 200 for a school with 100% of students scoring at levels 3 and 4. This year, the standard the state wants elementary schools to meet is 150 – what a school would have if 75% of students were scoring at levels 3 and 4 (and none at level 2). A more likely scenario would include some students at level 2. At the bottom end of the possibilities, a school could meet the standard if 50% of students scored at levels 3 and 4 and 50% achieved a level 2 score.

What that means is that a school can meet the state standards and qualify for the high-performing designation if as little as 50% of students are meeting standards as defined by their performance on the state test. Remember, level 2 performance is not considered to be meeting state standards.

Is this wrong? I’m not sure. Schools have been under tremendous pressure to improve since the mid-1990s, when state Education Commissioner Richard Mills took office and began a campaign to introduce tougher tests, require students to pass them to graduate and publicize tests results and other measures of school performance (attendance and suspension rates, for example). It was big news for several years, and the schools that felt the most heat were almost always schools with high proportions of poor students that already had a legacy of failure.

Then came the federal No Child Left Behind law, based on President Bush’s experience in Texas with educational accountability. The picture became significantly more complex, as No Child Left Behind requires states to hold schools accountable not only for overall test performance but also for the performance of subgroups of students, including ethnic groups and poor and disabled students. The intent of the law is to ensure that schools can’t hide poor results for poor or minority children behind overall high performance.

I can’t argue with any of these intentions. Even though some educators say schools have been driven to obsess about tests above all else and shortchange real learning, it seems to me you have to measure achievement across the state in a way that can be standardized and reported to the public.

After all, New York taxpayers spend more on their schools than any other state in the country. That was another recent bit of news, that New York’s per-student spending in 2004-05 was $14,119, 62 percent higher than the national average. And that’s before this year’s infusion of $1.8 billion in additional state aid to schools, negotiated by Gov. Eliot Spitzer and legislators to settle a lawsuit over school funding. The business-backed Public Policy Institute estimates per-student spending will rise to more than $18,000 this year.

State leaders promise even more educational accountability will follow this year’s big increase. But it can’t be effective if the public can’t understand it. The above description is just a taste of what’s involved in the current system – I didn’t even get a chance to tell you about “Adequate Yearly Progress,” “Annual Measurable Objectives,” and “Safe Harbor Targets.” These are all the ways the state treats schools that aren’t meeting the standards, probably the most important aspect of the accountability system.

I have no doubt that the folks at the Education Department who designed this system were trying to do the right thing: design objectives and targets that are fair to schools and motivate all to reach the highest possible performance. But the results are nearly inscrutable to the public. We shouldn’t have to trust that schools are doing well if the state says so; we should understand the basis upon which the state is judging schools. That’s going to require some redesign of the current system or a whole lot more newsprint and education reporters to explain what the state’s doing.

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