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Following Obama Administration’s Announcement on Test Reductions, New Brief Considers Alternative Accountability Approaches

William J. Mathis, (802) 383-0058,

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BOULDER, CO (October 25, 2015) – Yesterday, the Obama Administration acknowledged its own role in escalating the nation’s over-reliance on high-stakes, test-based accountability policies. It issued a Testing Action Plan for states, including a section on “reducing the reliance on student test scores through our rules and executive actions,” backing away somewhat from the Administration’s past policies that strongly promoted reliance on test scores in educator evaluation systems and in the evaluation of teacher preparation programs.

This shift in policy follows a nationwide disillusionment with test-based accountability policies, as illustrated by the opt-out movement; it also follows a growing consensus among researchers that test-based policies have been unsuccessful in driving greater learning. The question now becomes: where to from here?

This question is taken up in a new brief released today, written by Dr. William Mathis. In School Accountability, Multiple Measures and Inspectorates in a Post-NCLB World, Dr. Mathis discusses the efficacy of three types of school evaluation approaches. The first, test-based models consists of testing students, public reporting of school performance, and rewards or sanctions based on scores. This approach has been dominant in recent years but has been shown to have little or no effectiveness. In fact, this accountability model has generated negative consequences such as teaching to the test and narrowing of curriculum.

Coupled with a growing backlash against excessive testing, one of the key criticisms of standardized testing is that it doesn’t measure all the important aspects of a successful school. Thus a second model evolved, often called “multiple measures,” which is designed to more comprehensively capture a broader set of learning goals. This is the model that the Obama Administration now appears to be embracing. Dr. Mathis explains the idea of a comprehensive set of valid measures, but the nature and effectiveness of the model will depend largely on whether it includes strong measures of inputs as well as outcomes.

The third method, school self-evaluations plus inspectorates, has been eclipsed by test-based models in the U.S. but is used in other Western democracies. It has the advantage of being more inclusive and less likely to distort teaching and learning, but there are concerns of cost and unclear findings.

No evaluation system by itself, Dr. Mathis concludes, is capable of overcoming the deficiencies of a school or community lacking resources. The only way for school evaluation systems to succeed, he says, are “with all-around accountability.”

Dr. Mathis concludes with eight recommendations for policymakers:

  1. Adequate student opportunities and resources to achieve each state’s goals;
  2. Continued development of multiple-measure approaches that strive for balance and clarity;
  3. Cautious use of standardized test scores;
  4. Avoidance of data aggregation into a single score;
  5. Development and implementation of school visitation teams, with a priority on higher need schools;
  6. External reviews focusing on guidance and support rather than sanctions;
  7. Trained and qualified reviewers who meet prescribed standards; and
  8. Multiple stakeholders involved in the design of state’s evaluation/inspectorate program.

Mathis is Managing Director of the National Education Policy Center, housed at the University of Colorado Boulder School of Education. This brief is the first in a series of concise publications, Research-Based Options for Education Policymaking, taking up a number of important policy issues and identifying policies supported by research. Each section focuses on a different issue, and its recommendations to policymakers are based on the latest scholarship.

This brief is made possible in part by support provided by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice.

Find William Mathis’s brief on the NEPC website at:


The mission of the National Education Policy Center is to produce and disseminate high-quality, peer-reviewed research to inform education policy discussions. We are guided by the belief that the democratic governance of public education is strengthened when policies are based on sound evidence.  For more information on NEPC, please visit

This brief is also found on the GLC website at