VAMboozled!: A “Next Generation” Vision for School, Teacher, and Student Accountability

Within a series of prior posts (see, for example, here and here), I have written about what the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), passed in December of 2015, means for the U.S., or more specifically states’ school and teacher evaluation systems as per the federal government’s prior mandates requiring their use of growth and value-added models (VAMs).

Related, states were recently (this past May) required to submit to the federal government their revised school and teacher evaluation plans, post ESSA, given how they have changed, or not. While I have a doctoral student currently gathering updated teacher evaluation data, state-by-state, and our preliminary findings indicate that “things” have not (yet) changed much post ESSA, at least at the teacher level of focus in this study and except for in a few states (e.g., Connecticut, Oklahoma), states still have the liberties to change that which they do on both ends (i.e., school and teacher accountability).

Recently, a colleague recently shared with me a study titled “Next Generation Accountability: A Vision for School Improvement Under ESSA” that warrants coverage here, in hopes that states are still “out there” trying to reform their school and teacher evaluation systems, of course, for the better. While the document was drafted by folks coming from the aforementioned state of Oklahoma, who are also affiliated with the Learning Policy Institute, it is important to note that the document was also vetted by some “heavy hitters” in this line of research including, but not limited to, David C. Berliner (Arizona State University), Peter W. Cookson Jr. (American Institutes for Research (AIR)), Linda Darling-Hammond (Stanford University), and William A. Firestone(Rutgers University).

As per ESSA, states are to have increased opportunities “to develop innovative strategies for advancing equity, measuring success, and developing cycles of continuous improvement” while using “multiple measures to assess school and student performance” (p. iii). Likewise, the authors of this report state that “A broader spectrum of indicators, going well beyond a summary of annual test performance, seems necessary to account transparently for performance and assign responsibility for improvement.”

Here are some of their more specific recommendations that I found of value for blog followers:

  • The continued use of a single composite indicator to reduce and then sort teachers or schools by their overall effectiveness or performance (e.g., using teacher “effectiveness” categories or school A–F letter grades) is myopic, to say the least. This is because doing this (a) misses all that truly “matters,” including  multidimensional concepts and (non)cognitive competencies we want students to know and to be able to do, not captured by large-scale tests; and (b) inhibits the usefulness of what may be informative, stand-alone data (i.e., as taken from “multiple measures” individually) once these data are reduced and then collapsed so that they can be used for hierarchical categorizations and rankings. This also (c) very much trivializes the multiple causes of low achievement, also of importance and in much greater need of attention.
  • Accordingly, “Next Generation” accountability systems should include “a broad palette of functionally significant indicators to replace [such] single composite indicators [as this] will likely be regarded as informational rather than controlling, thereby motivating stakeholders to action” (p. ix). Stakeholders should be defined in the following terms…
  • “Next Generation” accountability systems should incorporate principles of “shared accountability,” whereby educational responsibility and accountability should be “distributed across system components and not foisted upon any one group of actors or stakeholders” (p. ix). “[E]xerting pressure on stakeholders who do not have direct control over [complex educational] elements is inappropriate and worse, harmful” (p. ix). Accordingly, the goal of “shared accountability” is to “create an accountability environment in which all participants [including governmental organizations] recognize their obligations and commitments in relation to each other” (p. ix) and their collective educational goals.
  • To facilitate this, “Next Generation” information systems should be designed and implemented in order to service the “dual reporting needs of compliance with federal mandates and the particular improvement needs of a state’s schools,” while also addressing “the different information needs of state, district, school site
    leadership, teachers, and parents” (p. ix). Data may include, at minimum, data on school resources, processes, outcomes, and other nuanced indicators, and this information must be made transparent and accessible in order for all types of data users to be responsive, holistically and individually (e.g, at school or classroom levels). The formative functions of such “Next Generation” informational systems, accordingly, take priority, at least for initial terms, until informational data can be used to, with priority, “identify and transform schools in catastrophic failure” (p. ix).
  • Related, all test- or other educational measurement-related components of states’ “Next Generation” statutes and policies should adhere to the Standards for Educational and Psychological Testing, and more specifically their definitions of reliability, validity, bias, fairness, and the like. Statutes and policies should also be written “in the least restrictive and prescriptive terms possible to allow for [continous] corrective action and improvement” (p. x).
  • Finally, “Next Generation” accountability systems should adhere to the following five essentials: “(a) state, district, and school leaders must create a system-wide culture grounded in “learning to improve;” (b) learning to improve using [the aforementioned informational systems also] necessitates the [overall] development of [students’] strong pedagogical data-literacy skills; (c) resources in addition to funding—including time, access to expertise, and collaborative opportunities—should be prioritized for sustaining these ongoing improvement efforts; (d) there must be a coherent structure of state-level support for learning to improve, including the development of a strong Longitudinal Data System (LDS) infrastructure; and (e) educator labor market policy in some states may need adjustment to support the above elements” (p. x).

To read more, please access the full report here.

In sum, “Next Generation” accountability systems aim at “a loftier goal—universal college and career readiness—a goal that current accountability systems were not designed to achieve. To reach this higher level, next generation accountability must embrace a wider vision, distribute trustworthy performance information, and build support infrastructure, while eliciting the assent, support, and enthusiasm of citizens and educators” (p. vii).

As briefly noted prior, “a few states have been working to put more supportive, humane accountability systems in place, but others remain stuck in a compliance mindset that undermines their ability to design effective accountability systems” (p. vii). Perhaps (or perhaps likely) this is because for the past decade or so states invested so much time, effort, and money to “reforming” their prior teacher evaluations systems as formerly required by the federal government. This included investments in states’ growth models of VAMs, onto which many/most states seem to be holding firm.

Hence, while it seems that the residual effects of the federal governments’ former efforts are still dominating states’ actions with regards to educational accountability, hopefully some states can at least begin to lead the way to what will likely yield the educational reform…still desired…

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Audrey Amrein-Beardsley

Audrey Amrein-Beardsley, a former middle- and high-school mathematics teacher, received her Ph.D. in 2002 from Arizona State University in the Division of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies with an emphasis on Research Methods. Awarded tenure in 2010 as an ASU Presidential Exemplar, she is currently an Associate Professor in the...