Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right

Verna D. Ruffin (University of Oklahoma, Tulsa, Oklahoma, USA)

Journal of Educational Administration

ISSN: 0957-8234

Article publication date: 14 August 2009



Ruffin, V.D. (2009), "Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right", Journal of Educational Administration, Vol. 47 No. 5, pp. 678-680.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2009, Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Throughout its history American education has defined board goals deemed important in the development of its youth. In Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right Rothstein et al. (2008) assert that these goals have remained surprisingly the same and are described in eight categories for which schools are to be held accountable. Though slight variations in descriptors for these outcomes, they remain basically those valued since inception of the American educational system. These categories include basic academic knowledge and skills, critical thinking and problem solving, appreciation of the arts and literature, preparation for skilled employment, social skills and work ethic, citizenship and community responsibility, physical health, and emotional health.

While schools should be held accountable for student learning and citizens have a right to know if public funding is used appropriately it is unfair to assume that standardized testing in math and reading alone can effectively provide that accountability. Such is the case with No Child Left Behind (NCLB). According to the authors (p. 2), “Although tests, properly interpreted, can contribute some important information about school quality, testing alone is a poor way to measure whether schools, or their students, perform adequately.” They further concur (p. 9), that “holding schools accountable for math and reading tests has created incentives for educators to pay less attention to curricular areas for which they are not held accountable” and propose holding institutions accountable for producing student learning in all categories in a balanced fashion not so easily measured using the current accountability system mandated in NCLB.

The authors challenge the standardized measures of NCLB and boldly suggest measures to examine broader school outcomes to determine if indeed education is performing satisfactorily. They state that when the (p. 142) “federal government's National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) was designed in the 1960s and implemented in the 1970s, it embodied many of the characteristics of a sophisticated and balanced accountability system.” However, they conclude that NAEP (p. 142) “later degenerated into a test mainly designed to produce academic test scores largely because Congress, while wanting accountability, was unwilling to appropriate the relatively small sums required to do accountability right.” Lack of appropriate funding has stifled the development of an accountability system to measure these broader school outcomes deemed important.

Organized into eight chapters, the book is easy to follow. In brief, while Chapter 1 acknowledges the need for an accountability system, Chapter 2 surveys the American public's value of the goals of education. In Chapter 3, the authors describe the limitations that NCLB places on learning as it holds schools accountable for only reading and math at the expense of other content and skills. Chapter 4 provides a comprehensive description about how an (p. 9) “accountability system organized around achieving a fixed proficiency point leads to excessive concentration on students whose performance is slightly below that point and ignores students who are either above or far below it” (p. 9). Chapter 5 compares accountability plans to lessons learned if state and federal policy makers would learn from the experiences of other public and private fields. In Chapter 6, the influence of NAEP is analyzed. The authors focus on other means of examining schools to include inspection of schools and other institutions responsible for the development of youth.

Chapter 7 gives a historical account of the evolution of American school boards and investigates other nations' school governance systems. In Chapter 8, the authors elaborate further on the inadequacy of NCLB and emphasize the importance of state federal control of education as opposed to federal control. While state control of education is preferred, the authors are adamant that federal responsibility must be in assuring that each state has the fiscal capacity to support schools.

The authors are supporters of an expanded NAEP state‐level assessment that will assess students in all subjects, not only reading and mathematics. They place emphasis on collection of data to include not only ethnicity but also a delineation of free or reduced lunch eligibility, education level of parents, family structure (e.g. single parent) and country of parent's birth. Such information the authors believe would (p. 148) “facilitate the ability of state leaders to draw valid conclusions about their policy needs” as it informs the system about economic status of families and offers valuable information pertinent to different circumstances from those who (p. 148) “are third generation and beyond” and those considerably poorer than others. The authors further advocate for NAEP scores being reported on scales and not achievement levels, age‐level and not grade‐level sampling, and inclusive of supplemental out‐of‐school samples to include a household survey. Proponents of NAEP, these authors believe this expanded assessment can inform (p. 152) “governors, legislators and citizens the extent to which their states are doing an adequate job of generating student success in each of the eight goals” identified.

Among the several interesting and helpful features of the book are four appendices: Schools as Scapegoats, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, Goals, Survey Methodology and Teacher Accounts of Goal Distortion. As one example, Schools as Scapegoats, co‐authored by Lawrence Mishel and Richard Rothstein, is reproduced with minor modifications from The American Prospect, October 12, 2007. The authors claim that (p. 168) “the elite consensus on education as a cure‐all seems to be collapsing” and that blaming education on inadequate schooling “might be too simplistic” and deserves to be examined. Noted in this appendix are references to position papers, views of economists and statistics on jobs available for youth yet not equally available. After analyzing a group of twenty‐first century occupations not requiring college education, they report that (p. 170) “white non‐college youth were 50% more likely to land one of these “good” jobs than black non‐college youth.” Proponents of reinstating vocational or career education in schools, they also agree with the statement that (p. 170) “No rebalancing of the labor force can restore a more equal distribution of productivity gains without government intervention and changes in private sector behavior.”

This book should provoke the thoughts of policy makers, politicians and those willing to take the next steps in addressing the gaps in NCLB. Focusing on content beyond math and reading scores, which dominate NCLB, this book challenges those responsible for assessments that focus on limited knowledge to place value on preparing youth for learning beyond the basics. By describing an accountability plan for public education that involves an expanded NAEP, Rothstein, Jacobsen and Wilder advocate for an inspection model involving professional educators, members of the public, representatives of the business community and elected officials. While inclusive of standardized test scores, student work beyond that reflected in a state exam should be included when evaluating the progress of schools. It is a must read for those stakeholders dissatisfied with the constraints of NCLB and those seeking to change accountability for the twenty‐first century.

Further Reading

Rothstein, R., Jacobsen, R. and Wilder, T. (2008), Grading Education: Getting Accountability right, Economic Policy Institute, Washington, DC.

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