Last week, we at the Center on Reinventing Public Education celebrated our twenty-fifth anniversary by hosting a convening of practitioners, advocates, and researchers to take stock of where our education system stands, and how it must change to prepare every child for a future where change will be the one certain constant. We discussed a set of essays focused on ideas ranging from more customized learning and talent development, to innovative career preparation strategies, to out-of-school enrichment, as well as new roles for teachers, community groups, and school system leaders.
I was taken aback that one of the main headlines coming out of those difficult, provocative, and nuanced conversations was that reformers were souring on standardized tests.
Our gathering in Seattle could hardly be described as a representative sample of reformers. We intentionally brought together reform critics, researchers, and others outside the usual education-policy crowd, seeking people who would push each other’s thinking and pressure-test the ideas in our papers. And though there were indeed some vocal critics of test-based accountability within the crowd, the prevailing view was that it’s more essential than ever to measure student academic and other progress, but our measures and methods must continue to evolve.
What this group shared in common was a willingness to question assumptions. We're hardly the only ones looking for fresh thinking right now. Kenya Bradshaw of TNTP has described the current moment as a “policy winter.” Fordham’s Mike Petrilli has declared “the end of education policy.”
Yet our students are preparing to confront a future where rapid shifts in technology, including but surely not confined to artificial intelligence, promise new opportunities accompanied by greater economic upheaval. Talented innovators and problem-solvers will be needed more than ever to solve increasingly complex economic, political, environmental, and social challenges.
Preparing every student for this future demands that our education systems create more diverse academic pathways that allow students to nurture specific skills and talents, as CRPE founder Paul Hill observed in his new essay on governance and accountability. But this won't diminish the importance of foundational academic skills like literacy and numeracy; on the contrary, it will demand that students attain these “gateway” skills—and more of them—earlier in life than we have typically expected. Hill is not alone in making this observation; the World Bank has similarly highlighted the importance of measuring students' foundational skills.
Four years ago, colleagues at CRPE and the Thomas B. Fordham Institute convened a group of scholars and policy experts who outlined a set of principles that can ground a productive school accountability debate. Those remain a helpful starting point.
A debate about how to structure accountability in this new era must be informed by what has changed since No Child Left Behind became law almost seventeen years ago. Students now have more choices. It's become the norm in big cities for them to attend schools outside their “attendance zones.” Their parents also have better information to inform those choices, and a growing body of research shows that parents can use that information to select more effective schools so long as system leaders make that information accessible.
There's also a growing push to measure student progress in ways that are more competency-based and personalized. In CRPE's recent work on personalized learning, we saw how angst over accountability mechanisms like teacher evaluations stymied innovation in schools. But at the same time, we need to be wary that some of the very groups leveling this critique at accountability systems are would-be education providers—including online charter schools—that have consistently posted dismal academic results.
A personalized approach to accountability should not give some providers a pass on performance in the name of fostering innovation. At our event on last week, Lindsay Jones of the National Center for Learning Disabilities underscored the urgency of this question, asking how we can ensure that schools meet a standard of excellence for students with special needs at a time when our nation can ill afford to squander their talents. Here NCLB got something important right: It held schools accountable for the performance of key subgroups within their student populations—including students with disabilities and non-native English speakers. Sandy Kress and other accountability hawks are right to worry about the present retreat from these requirements. In another essay in our twenty-fifth anniversary collection, we argue that American education must focus on creating high expectations for every student, rather than simply measuring the aggregate performance of all pupils. That would increase the accountability demands on schools because they could no longer hide struggling individuals behind average performance improvements.
Still, these ideals are easier to articulate than to enshrine in policy. As Caleb Offley, a senior advisor with the Walton Family Foundation, observed, Hill's paper poses more questions (nineteen) than it answers. That's an indication of where our debate currently stands. And it reflects the considerations that school system leaders grapple with constantly. Under what circumstances does it make sense to close a struggling school or try to shore it up? Are accountability-related fears that stifle innovation well founded, or can talented, focused school leaders help overcome them? How should accountability systems gauge the broader set of skills, including what Andreas Schleicher described as one’s “compass—the ability to define one’s way,” that we believe our students will need in the future, without diluting the expectations they set around core academic skills like literacy and numeracy?
What exactly do we want to happen when students aren’t achieving basic competencies? Imagine a ninth grader who shows up in high school reading at a third-grade level. Should the high school be held accountable for that student's lack of proficiency? What level of growth should we demand as the school begins the painstaking work of building that student's vocabulary, background knowledge, and confidence? How can we create early-warning systems to ensure that these kinds of learning gaps get diagnosed and addressed long before that student arrives at high school unable to read?
These are hard questions. The right answers may depend on the needs of individual students, the professional judgment of those who educate them, and the local context in which they operate. As Gisèle Huff of the Jaquelin Hume Foundation observed during one of our discussions, a key foundation for any accountability system is trust. None of that is reason to eradicate tests and testing; what it does is underscore the importance of testing done right. Educators need confidence that tests, standards, and the performance expectations by which teachers are judged will remain constant, year over year. Policymakers need—and will be responsible for helping build—that confidence. Parents need clear, stable metric by which to know whether their children are making progress and to help them select schools where there children will thrive, as well as confidence that they will have recourse if their kids aren’t meeting their learning goals. And the accountability systems that are informed—in part—by testing need to be trustworthy, too.
At CRPE, we are committed to creating a forum where thoughtful people can grapple with these questions, in all of their complexity, without losing sight of the fact that our public education system must work urgently to prepare every child for the future. Falling back into reform camps and either-or thinking are sure paths to continued stasis. Instead, students need us to come together to create new opportunities for upward mobility, career readiness, and ways to realize untapped potential.
Robin Lake is the director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell.