Over the course of the school reform movement, the phrase "school accountability" has taken on more of the characteristics of a political slogan than the characteristics of a credible signifier of professional practice. Used by the proponents of high stakes testing in general and by the advocates of ESEA-NCLB in particular, the slogan is used to freeze the arguments of those opposed to invalid and inaccurate school accountability systems-- To argue against school accountability systems is seemingly to argue against being a responsible professional practitioner. But, challenging the current accountability system is not the same as rejecting the principle of professional accountability whatsoever; it is questioning the efficacy and credibility of the measures used to rate performance.
However, if professional accountability is understood in the application of its actual concept, we can quickly understand the fallacy of its use by the politicians, corporate special interest groups, and right-wing extremists who have adopted it as a slogan to hold children and educators hostage to proficiency testing and local school report cards. Nowhere is the political box-and-block better exemplified than in ESEA-NCLB where the lead slogan of the legislation itself, "No Child Left Behind" is used to preempt any questioning of the fairness, validity, or credibility of the federal accountability mandates. Understanding the concept of professional accountability requires understanding the concepts of professional responsibility and professional decision latitude as they apply to professional practice.
Professional accountability means being held responsible for the appropriateness and effectiveness of professional practice. The idea of holding educators responsible, ensuring professional responsibility, is the purpose of accountability. To be credible, worthy of belief by all stakeholders, professional accountability must insure that those being held accountable have control over those things in their professional practice that they are being held responsible for. In most simple terms, accountability means being held responsible for professional decision making and professional actions within the context of the profession.
If the State or Federal government were to hold local news weather reporters accountable for each day's weather, the public would think that to be unfair and uninformed. The weather reporters have no control over the meteorological conditions they encounter; they can only control the how they forecast. Therefore, to be fair and to generate accurate and credible reports to stakeholders, it is only right and proper to hold some one accountable for only those things within their decision latitude-- for only things over which practitioners have control and the power to affect. It is certainly unreasonable to hold anyone accountable for something over which they have neither control nor decision latitude.
In the same sense as in the weather analogy, teachers have no control over the student conditions they encounter-- the living conditions, the poverty or wealth, the advantages or disadvantages, the intellectual gifts or deficits, or the developmental readiness each child brings to school. Yet, in the case of high stakes tests and their use in ESEA-NCLB school accountability systems, there is an explicit assumption that test results of student achievement are solely and entirely a function of the educators professional practice, nothing else. This assumption is contradicted by all the evidence and research on standardized achievement testing.
The reality of any and all K-12 standardized achievement test performance is that the scores are determined primarily by the lived experience of the test taker. Overall, the more advantaged and enriched the experience of the child, the better the performance on the tests. When we look at the number of children passing proficiency tests by school districts, they performances correlate extremely high with the level of wealth the districts. Given that all scientifically-based research within the fields of parametric statistics, psychometrics, educational research, and tests and measurement, tells us that the ESEA-NCLB testing assumptions are dangerously wrong2, we can now begin to understand why the accountability system mandated under ESEA-NCLB is a pseudo-accountability system as opposed to an authentic accountability system.
Again, it is reasonable to think of holding weather people accountable for their professional actions in making the forecast of bad or good weather, not the bad or good weather itself. If we were to hold weather reporters to the same kind of pseudo accountability as we do educators, then the forecasters in places like Hawaii, San Antonio, or Tahiti would get the highest ratings and those in places like Seattle, Cleveland, or Fargo would get the lowest. They would line up according to the conditions outside their professional control just as school proficiency test performance aligns with conditions primarily outside the control of educators.
Yet, that is exactly what ESEA-NCLB does: It rewards and punishes educators according to the degree to which a school's student population is more or less advantaged or disadvantaged, privileged or underprivileged by the economic or social circumstances of their lives and by their innate differing talents and intellectual abilities. With incredible statistical significance (Hoover, 2000; Ross, 2003), the highest to lowest performing schools line up with the socio-economic indices of their students' lives. ESEA-NCLB does not consider the actual impact building educators have on their students. ESEA-NCLB, in fact, ensures that the actual professional impact of building and district educators is entirely precluded from report card presentation.
When we discover that student performance on standardized proficiency tests and achievement tests is determined primarily by non-school forces and factors that reflect the lived experiences and real-world circumstances of the children taking these tests, the idea of holding either the school's educators or school children themselves accountable for test performance is absurd and logically wrong. Not only are the teachers and students victimized, the stakeholders who see the results are mislead and misinformed by the inaccuracy of measures used in ESEA-NCLB pseudo accountability. All stakeholders have the right in a democratic society to expect government agency reports of school performance to be credible-- to be reliable and trustworthy. Democratic justice demands that we rate and judge school performance in a manner clearly worthy of citizen confidence.
The proficiency-achievement tests used to determine academic achievement are one-size-fits-all. They make no exceptions for individual differences, ability levels, or any other individual or group characteristics that significantly shape student academic performance. Likewise, the pseudo-accountability system mandated by ESEA-NCLB is also one-size-fits-all because it treats all school-building educators as if the range of the problems, the nature of the issues, and the lived-realities of the children they teach are identical. We know even from common-sense experience how untrue this one-size-fits-all mentality is. Just as the children within one family can vary tremendously in their academic performance and social ability, the variance in academic and social ability grows exponentially with the greater diversity of home-life experiences across classroom populations, through building and district populations, and on across state populations.
No dedicated education professional rejects accountability; indeed, educators welcome any and all authentic accountability systems that will validly and accurately demonstrate to all stakeholders the dedication, effectiveness, and success of their professional practice. But, for school accountability systems to be fair and valid, they must scientifically represent and accurately report the actual impact building educators are having on the achievement of their students; the reporting systems must embrace authentic accountability just as surely as they must reject pseudo accountability. They must be credible-- demonstrably worthy of belief on the part of all stakeholders.
1 Note: This essay is a collaborative revision an earlier, pre-ESEA-NCLB version written by Hoover in 1999.
2 American Educational Research Association at http://www.aera.net/about/policy/stakes.htm