August 11, 2011

Redefining Achievement in Educational Accountability Systems

August 11, 2011

Since advocacy for accountability in education began, state and federal policy initiatives have used standards tests as a yardstick. From IQ tests to undergraduate and professional degree programs, standards tests have been used to measure ability and predict achievement. In recent years, standardized tests have been used to evaluate schools and their ability to teach. Critics of standardized testing measures have questioned their objectivity and reliability and their failure to account for the variety of background factors that affect student performance.

Basing accountability on these standardized tests is potentially dangerous because the yardstick is in a status-based metric, where schools are responsible for ensuring that some percentage of all students reaches the “proficient status” level. The responsibility goes a step further when schools are responsible for subgroups of students –say, certain racial/ethnic categories and the socioeconomically disadvantaged—at those targets as well.

Given this set up, education policy initiatives must take into account that certain schools that are often being penalized for not meeting these benchmarks might well be able to grow to such a status-level in student performance over time. Adding the capacity to measure student progress and growth over time through standardized testing would redefine what schools are being held accountable for. Accounting for progress is telling a different story about how well a school is doing rather than seeing a mass number of students at a testing status-level every year.

Holding schools accountable through student standardized test scores also raises another concern when you consider the large impact that student background factors have on their performance. As much as two-thirds of the variation in standardized test score performance is affected by background factors as family structure, the local neighborhood, and peer influence. By the same token, a little less than one-third is school-based. Considering the much larger impact background factors have compared to the school experience, education policymakers need to understand that standardized testing reports are not telling us the entire, or maybe even correct, story of a student or schools performance.

Still, standardized tests are the closest metric we have for evaluating our nation’s educational outcomes. That makes it policymakers’ responsibility to re-define and develop this measurement. Studying the effects of growth measurements would be one way to make sure these assessment measures in our educational accountability systems keep evolving statistically. A growth metric would also be a way to acknowledge that every school has different students who enter different test-rooms with more than just their backpack on, thus understanding that not every student, and subsequently every school, can be expected to reach the same status across the board. This would make what these tests can tell us about the nation’s variety of schools more reliable.


As an organization, the Urban Institute does not take positions on issues. Experts are independent and empowered to share their evidence-based views and recommendations shaped by research.