The Center for Public School Renewal

Note: Published in slightly different form as "No Easy Answer to School Accreditation" by The Detroit News, 12/18/2001.

Original Title:
Can We Get It Right?
by Barry McGhan

In June, the new state school Superintendent, Tom Watkins, declared an untried new school accreditation system dead on arrival. Since then, the state Department of Education has been working on a new approach to assessing schools, called Education-YES -- Yardstick for Excellent Schools. An overview of the new proposal was recently released on the department's website. They will hold public meetings on the new system in early 2002.

Can we get it right this time?

The answer is "Maybe," especially if we try to devise a system that is sophisticated enough to assess the real complexities of schools and their environments. That was the primary flaw in the system Watkins canned. It would have determined the fate of schools based on just the MEAP test.

There were several things wrong with that. For openers, the MEAP isn't a standardized test in the usual sense, nor was it designed to be a high-stakes measure of student achievement. Such "minor" technicalities were unimportant to some. They wanted facts to finger failing schools, and any old facts would do.

A failing school is one with poor test scores, right? But is it? The long-standing high negative correlation between test scores and poverty levels may mean there's more to the story than tests tell. Perhaps students "race" toward high achievement from different starting points or with different handicaps.

The second most promising turn in the school accreditation story -- after Watkins' gutsy stop order -- was his invitation to Prof. William Sanders to come and talk about his approach to school assessment. The heart of Sanders' proposal, based on his research in Tennessee schools, is to look at data that compares a kid's achievement this year with where he was last year. This is in contrast to the MEAP test which compares students' achievement to other students and to an arbitrary standard.

Sanders' system asks the question, "Did a year's worth of school study result in a year's worth of learning, regardless of where the student started?" The MEAP test can't answer this question, because students only take it every three years or so.

But let's not assume that Sanders' idea would be the solution to all of our problems, either. It raises a number of questions of its own. Like, "Can poor students make the same amount of annual progress as middle class students?" Or, "What will it take to develop yearly tests that also address the state curriculum objectives, as the MEAP supposedly does?" Also, "Would this system lead to a built-in set of lower expectations for at-risk low-income children?"

Sanders' proposal gives us an alternative to consider as we try to find a system that is fair, objective, and actually helps us improve. Also, one of Watkins' objectives for the revised system calls for it to be aligned with Standard and Poor's Evaluation Service, launched earlier this year. That's good because S & P provides a variety of data and information about schools, thus giving a more complete picture than a single test score could.

With the new school accreditation plan before us, we need to keep some basic questions in mind. Is the plan sufficiently robust to establish multiple measures of both effort (inputs) and performance (outputs)? Will connections between inputs and outputs be developed, so we can see how what we do is related to what we get? Can the system be both robust and clear and understandable? What assurance will we have that the new system is valid and reliable?

School accreditation does not seem well defined anywhere in the country, so there's no road map showing us how to find a viable system. Consequently, an especially critical question is, "Will the new system be proposed as ‘a work in progress'?" If it is, then refinements and adjustments can be easily made as experience dictates.

Accreditation is viewed as the means to enforce accountability in the education system. Accountability, in turn, should be connected to power. It's not fair to hold people accountable if they have no power to reach the identified goals. So, a final question is, "Will teachers -- who have the central role in school achievement -- be empowered with the control they need to bring about improvements?"

Whether a more realistic assessment system will satisfy everyone is hard to say. Many people like simple answers to complex questions. If the state develops a system where the picture of failure, while more accurate, is less clear, we may not like that so much. If full disclosure of failure points to culprits other than some incompetent educators, we may not like that either. But then, who said getting to the bottom of our problems with schools was going to be easy?


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