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Teacher Newsmagazine Volume 18, Number 4, January/February 2006

The promise and peril of high-stakes accountability

by Sandra Mathison and E. Wayne Ross

Educators today are besieged by a movement that demands higher and higher scores on standardized tests. Anyone who has looked carefully at these tests knows that they are loaded with trivia—questions that most successful adults cannot answer and would indeed scorn to answer. Our children are being fed intellectual junk food, and we would do well to insist on a healthier educational diet.

– Nel Noddings, "War, Critical Thinking, and Self Understanding," Phi Delta Kappan, March 2004.

The high-stakes-accountability road has been taken in many countries, especially the USA. Changes are occurring that suggest Canada is headed down the same road (for example, the Fraser Institute report card on schools, the Ontario School Secondary Literacy Test as a graduation requirement, provincial tests of reading, writing, and math at the elementary and secondary levels, and a media that implicitly supports high-stakes accountability). While there is great promise offered by the rhetoric of high-stakes accountability there is also great peril. We should take advantage of what is known about the false promise and the unanticipated perils of high-stakes accountability, and map an alternative route.

What is high-stakes accountability? It is most often manifest in systems of accountability called bureaucratic-outcomes-based accountability. These are systems in which students, teachers, and/or administrators are accountable to a central government authority for demonstrating success on a small set of common indicators of student performance. And there are tangible consequences at the individual and school level for failure.

The promises of high-stakes accountability

There are a number of promises and assumptions that are part of the rhetoric of high-stakes accountability:

  • Teachers will teach all children and have uniformly high expectations.
  • Outcome measures will motivate teachers to teach well and students to learn well.
  • Achievement differences based on race, ethnicity, gender, and first language will be eliminated.
  • Students not well served by public schools will be.
  • School credentials will be more meaningful.
  • Meaningful schooling outcomes (at the individual and organizational levels) can be captured by annually administered census standardized tests.
  • High school graduates will meet workplace expectations.
  • National and international market competitiveness will be enhanced.
  • Measurement techniques and technology are up to the task.

This last point is important because faith in educational measurement assumes that single standardized tests are valid for the purpose, that the important outcomes of schooling can be captured with a standardized test, and that the scoring and reporting of scores are trustworthy.

The perils of high-stakes accountability

The perils of high-stakes accountability, in large part, stem from the underlying assumptions of the promise of high-stakes accountability.

  • Treating everyone the same all the time does not constitute fairness.
  • External motivation (based largely on punishment) is not the only, or the best way, to get people to change, and in fact diminishes a love of learning.
  • Consequences, rewards, and sanctions have unanticipated and undesired impact—like defining the curriculum as that which is tested, increasing drop-out rates, increasing the number of kids in special education.
  • The professionalism of teachers is diminished because it is assumed they cannot be trusted to do the right thing or a good job.
  • Uniform and single measures of learning are just bad evaluation practice.
  • Annually administered standardized tests capture only a fraction of academic expectations (the curriculum cannot be covered in a one-shot test).
  • Annually administered standardized tests capture nothing about other important schooling outcomes (citizenship, social development, work habits, antiviolence).
  • When social indicators are used for important decision-making there is a high likelihood the indicators and the uses of those indicators will be corrupted.

Authentic accountability: An alternative

There is an alternative to high-stakes accountability—authentic accountability—a more locally based although still public system of accountability where schools are accountable to parents and the public for how well a school is educating its students and about the quality of the social and learning environment through the use of authentic and multiple indicators.

There are four basic principles of authentic accountability:

  1. Improvement. Use of a wider range of strategies to improve the quality of schools and learning, such as professional development.
  2. Equity. Closing the race, ethnicity, and class achievement gaps and overcoming the consequences of poverty and racism, through the provision of health and social welfare care as well as academic care.
  3. Democracy. Control over and responsibility for schools must be grounded in sound principles of participatory democracy, such as informed involvement of local stakeholders.
  4. Informing the public. Providing accurate information about the functioning, successes, and problems of public education, such as information about libraries, health care, availability of enough and current textbooks, clean and equipped bathrooms, and so on.

Authentic accountability is characterized by:

  • local authentic assessments.
  • school quality review model.
  • low-stakes standardized testing in literacy and numeracy.
  • annual local reporting by schools to their communities.
  • consequences at the school level, not the child or teacher level, for failure.

The rhetoric of outcomes-based accountability is appealing—who wouldn’t want all kids to succeed and high-school graduation to be meaningful? It is imperative that teachers, school administrators, trustees, parents, and students work together to champion authentic accountability, an accountability based on shared democratic responsibility and not on simplistic signs like test scores.

Sandra Mathison and Wayne Ross are professors in the Faculty of Education at UBC.

sandra.mathison@ubc.ca, wayne.ross@ubc.ca



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