Stop Confusing Assessment and Accountability

“While some tests are for accountability purposes only, the vast majority of assessments should be tools in a broader strategy to improve teaching and learning. In a well-designed testing strategy, assessment outcomes are not only used to identify what students know, but also inform and guide additional teaching, supports, or interventions that will help students master challenging material.”


The above passage is from an October 24 United States Department of Education  Fact Sheet about “overtesting,” which tacitly acknowledged that the “accountability and assessment” movement in public schools has surpassed ridiculous proportions. The first page of the Fact Sheet even contained a half-hearted mea culpa that the federal powers bore “some of the responsibility for” the current norm of “unnecessary testing and not enough clarity of purpose applied to the task of assessing students,” which has ended up “consuming too much instructional time… creating undue stress for educators and students.”

I absolutely agree that “overtesting” is a major problem. The Fact Sheet calls for a cap of 2% of instructional time being devoted to standardized testing (which still amounts to between 20 and 22 hours of standardized testing per kid, per year). This is a start, I suppose.

My bigger issue, though, comes in the paragraph I included at the top of this post. Specifically that opening clause: “While some tests are for accountability purposes only.”

I want to make this clear: No test should be used “for accountability purposes only.” Ever. Period.

As I’ve already pointed out in posts long ago, we have a problem in this country with the concept of “accountability.” Basically, our use of “accountability” is not about ensuring that schools take responsibility for or have the capacity to explain actions taken (the real definition of the word), but rather, that schools are threatened with punishment or sanctions based on performance outcomes.

A nuance to this: I do think that it is reasonable for assessment and test data be used to examine the performance of a school, building, or teacher. Examining the performance of and threatening with consequences are two very different things. Simply, the fear of a consequence doesn’t actually improve performance of complex tasks (like teaching). Assessment and test data, though, can be a valuable tool for examining the effectiveness of systems and practices if (and only if) when the “data” doesn’t look good, the response is constructive intervention such as increased time, resources, or training. The classroom parallel is simple: If Johnny doesn’t write to standard it doesn’t serve him if I take away his pencil and paper.

Every test or assessment should serve one or both of two narrow purposes: the old assessment “of” and “for” learning. Either the assessment informs students, teachers, and parents what the student has learned (assessment “of” learning), or the assessment informs students, teachers, and parents what the student has yet to learn, thus informing how instruction should take place (assessment “for” learning). Of course, an assessment can accomplish both of these.

If that assessment is then used to examine teaching, I am not opposed to this provided that this assessment information be for examining the performance of the teacher to support that teacher rather than punish him. No assessment of students should be designed and administered for the sole purpose of “accountability.”

David Weinberger (Researcher at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center, and co-director of the very fancy sounding Harvard Library Innovation Lab) was featured in a 2007 Harvard Business Review article called “The Folly of Accountabalism,” where he defines the key problems with a focus on “accountability.” As you read this, change out “businesses” and “company” for “schools” and “learning system” and it will ring familiar:

[Accountabalism] looks at complex systems that have gone wrong for complex reasons and decides the problem can be solved at the next level of detail. Another set of work procedures is written, and yet more forms are printed up. But businesses are not mechanical, so we can’t fine-tune them by making every process a well-regulated routine. Accountabalism turns these complex systems into merely complicated systems, sacrificing innovation and adaptability. How can a company be agile if every change or deviation requires a new set of forms? (Source)

My interpretation: holding schools and teachers accountable cannot be reduced to looking at a data point. The author continues, and as you read, keep transposing the education context for the business context:

Accountabalism bureaucratizes and atomizes responsibility. While claiming to increase individual responsibility, it drives out human judgment. When a sign-off is required for every step in the work flow [or in the case of us in schools, that sign-off becomes a test], those closest to a process lack the leeway to optimize or rectify it. Similarly, by assuming that an individual’s laxness caused a given problem . . . accountabalism can miss systemic causes of failure, even, ironically, as it responds to the problem by increasing the system’s reach.

Accountabalism tries to squeeze centuries of thought about how to entice people toward good behavior and dissuade them from bad into simple rules by which individuals can be measured and disciplined. It would react to a car crash by putting stop signs at every corner.

(Bracketed comments and emphasis mine.)

The fact that the word accountabalism looks and sounds an awful lot like the word cannibalism isn’t lost on me either. It describes a system that consumes and destroys its own. Weinberger even notes this connection and the insane accountability movement in schools:

Because accountability suggests that there is a right and a wrong answer to every question, it flourishes where we can measure results exactly. It spread to schools – where it is eating our young – as a result of our recent irrational exuberance about testing, which forces education to become something that can be measured precisely.

Let’s stop confusing assessment and accountability. The former is simply part of good teaching. The latter, grossly misapplied as it is, gets in the way of good teaching.

5 thoughts on “Stop Confusing Assessment and Accountability

  1. Tom White

    I couldn’t agree more. The best way to make standardized tests better is to stop using them to measure teachers.

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