Rethinking Accountability in the Post-No Child Left Behind Era

No Child Left Behind

For more than a dozen years, “accountability” has meant one thing in public education: test scores. In 2001, the federal No Child Left Behind law was passed, bringing with it the requirement that all public schools test students once per year, primarily in grades 3–8. While some groups celebrated the spotlight shone on schools that came with this testing requirement, many education professionals raised questions about whether or not standardized test scores were being overused—or even misused.


After years of discussion, debate, and disagreement over how best to improve the federal law, Congress passed an updated education policy bill in 2015—the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). One of the most intriguing elements of ESSA is that states must continue annual testing, but there is now more “wiggle room” regarding which tests to give and what to do with the results. Under No Child Left Behind, standardized test scores in math and reading became the measure for how schools were doing, along with an original—but never accomplished—goal of getting 100 percent of all students to become proficient in these two subject areas by the 2013–2014 school year.


Now, states are expected to create their own accountability systems and assessments, as well as to decide how much weight should be given to annual test scores. Under No Child Left Behind, schools could be shut down or “fresh-started” based solely on student test scores. With ESSA, states have the newly granted freedom to move away from this framework and could, in fact, decide to put very little weight on annual tests.

ESSA requires states to include more than just test scores when determining which schools are succeeding and which ones are struggling, opening the door to refreshed thinking concerning assessment. Instead of judging schools according to a one-day, high-stakes standardized test given to all students—regardless of how well they speak English, how long they’ve been in the United States, or their family’s socioeconomic status—states can now factor in elements such as how safe a school is and the engagement levels of its students and staff. This movement beyond narrow, test-based measurements is often referred to as “multiple measures” or multimetric accountability.


California is one of the first states to have seized upon the opportunity to evaluate its schools through a broader lens. Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hamilton helped lead the push to evaluate California’s schools with a “continuous improvement” model, according to a 2015 article in the online journal EdSource. Instead of pinning success on a test score, this model asks that schools be given the resources needed to “pursue meaningful learning” for students and cultivate “ongoing professional development” for teachers and administrators.


California Governor Jerry Brown is said to be very supportive of moving beyond test-based accountability, and has paired it with plans to put more decision-making in the hands of the state’s local school districts. That said, switching from a one-shot or summative approach to a so-called “dashboard” accountability plan with multiple measures will not be easy. Which measures should be included? Which should be left out? After years of test score-based evaluation, how will parents and the broader community be able to assess schools?


Questions such as these are part of the new challenges—and opportunities—created by the 2015 Every Student Succeeds Act. Regardless of how the new framework is implemented, the most important takeaway is the increased flexibility states now have to evaluate student learning in their own ways, thereby better serving their unique student populations.

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