At its August 2017 meeting, the Kentucky Board of Education unanimously approved a second reading on a regulation launching a new statewide school accountability system. It was the culmination of 18 months of work by the Commissioner of Education and Kentucky Department of Education staff to gather feedback from across the state and reimagine what accountability and school performance reporting should look like under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).
A lot of work lies ahead to put flesh on the bones of this accountability proposal, but now that some of the heaviest lifting is over, I want to offer some reflections on the new system – at least the rough shell that we’ve developed at this point – and what it all means. As always, let me emphasize that thoughts I share here are mine alone and do not represent the views of Western Kentucky University (where I am associate professor of educational administration, leadership, and research) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).
For details on the new accountability system, I encourage you to watch Commissioner Pruitt’s recent interview with KET’s Education Matters program. Likewise, I think it’s important to situation all discussions about school accountability within a clear context about what accountability can and cannot do. I wrote about this during the process of developing the new plan here and here.
Read all that too, but let me summarize in extreme brief: school accountability systems exist to give educators and the public information about how schools are doing so that they can use that information in a variety of ways, but especially to drive and give direction to school improvement efforts. We have great debates about accountability systems because we have disagreements about how to define school success, which measures are the best metrics of school performance and especially how those data are used. No one ever seems perfectly happy about any accountability system, and everybody seems to want the accountability system to do something that it just can’t do: force schools to improve.
There are also a number of reasons why accountability systems can’t force schools to improve, but the biggest reason is that the real work of school improvement is mostly a local endeavor. Accountability is all about how we convey information on school performance so many people can make decisions with it - parents, policy makers, the business community – but most especially local educators, district leaders, and the constituents of their schools.
Kentucky’s new accountability system isn’t going to be perfect. I wish it more heavily weighed student growth over time in describing overall school effectiveness, but growth has to be balanced against the other legitimate yardsticks by which we want to assess schools (like the percentages of students who are proficient in various subjects) and the logistical challenges of actually gathering such complex data.
For example, we don’t currently have a test in place that would measure the growth in academic achievement a student experiences over the course of her high school experience. We can use the ACT as a rough marker of achievement at the end of high school, but there’s no comparable pre-assessment at the beginning of her high school journey that would allow us to measure her growth over time. We could adopt or implement one someday of course (I hope we will) but given the assessments that now exist, there’s no high school growth measure. That’s too bad, but it doesn’t nullify the overall quality of system in terms of its attempt to balance those components that stakeholders have all indicated they want it to include: proficiency, growth, readiness for college and careers, achievement gap closure, and the extent to which schools are providing all students opportunity and access to a rich curriculum and whole child supports.
This last component is a new and unique feature of the system, and one that is fraught with uncertainties. One thing that came through clearly in the dozens of community forums the Commissioner hosted across the state is that many people want schools to pay attention to more than just tested subject areas. They want students to have access to great arts programs, career and technical education, and the kinds of outside-the-classroom resources that make a difference in student success like guidance counselors, schools nurses, and library media specialists. So the new accountability system will seek to measure the extent to which schools are providing those kinds of opportunity and access.
The problem is that at this point we’re not entirely sure how we’re going to actually measure these elements. Definitions need to be developed, metrics need to be established, and above all data actually has to be collected to establish what high-quality opportunity and access looks like, versus just middling or poor opportunity and access. These uncertainties may appear to be a flaw in the system, and they do indeed leave me uncomfortable, but are not uncommon when a state is implementing a new accountability model. In truth, data from all metrics, including academic achievement measures, will have to be gathered and assessed to establish “cut scores” for deciding what high, medium, and low-performance looks like.
I see no reason not to move forward with the basic framework because we don’t know exactly how it’s going to work out in practice. I’ve seen the labor that got us to this point; no one wants to build something that is going to fail. If we find through implementation that changes need to be made, then we can make them. At this point what’s most important is to place a stake in the ground for the general components of school performance we want to see in the system, and parents, students, and teachers across Kentucky have voiced their support for including opportunity and access (as evidenced by the strong endorsement of the proposed accountability model by various educator groups).
There are two other elements to the accountability system that I think represent major leaps forward. First, as stipulated under Kentucky’s Senate Bill 1 of 2017, we have done away with a single summative score for school performance. See my extended argument for why I think summative numerical scores (and letter grades) are a bad idea; the main point is that trying to boil a school’s quality down to a single number masks so many important factors that convey what a school is doing well and the areas in which it is struggling.
Our replacement for the summative score is a five-star rating system, which isn’t perfect by any means. There’s still a certain loss of information if all a person considers is the overall number of stars (although the new “dashboard” school report card system will place all those specific data points at our fingertips). But no one will be able to simply rank order schools by performance (at least not within performance levels), a practice under the old system that encouraged way too much focus on gaming the system in whatever way possible to get a little bump in rank.
Related to this is what I consider a second improvement in the new accountability system: no school with significant achievement gaps will be able to achieve the top two performance ratings (4 and 5 stars; under the old system schools could still achieve a “distinguished” rating even with big achievement gaps). It’s possible of course that there will have very few schools rated 4 or 5. If that happens, it should serve as a signal to the entire state that we must ramp up all our efforts at school improvement.
Which brings me to my last point. After several vigorous, sometimes emotional debates, the Board of Education endorsed extremely ambitious, historically unprecedented improvement goals for Kentucky schools. Every board member wants us to hit those targets, but we all know well that we cannot get there “doing school” the way we’ve always done it. Massive changes in school governance and educational delivery, financing, community engagement, and especially instructional practice will be necessary to even contemplate reaching for these goals.
We don’t have to know exactly how we’re going to get there to articulate a vision for where we want to go. Accountability is just our tool for measuring our progress. Now the real works begins and it will take a much deeper commitment from every Kentuckian to make it happen.