Rethinking Accountability in a College and Career-Ready World

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Achieve has long advocated that K-12 accountability systems reflect the goal of college and career readiness for all students and measure and provide incentives for improvement toward that goal. A robust system focused on college and career readiness enables states to evaluate the effectiveness of their schools in preparing all students for success after high school. Accountability is a critical piece of the puzzle, a puzzle that starts with college- and career-ready standards, graduation requirements and assessments. With rare exceptions, current accountability systems are far from this ideal.

Designing an accountability system focused on preparing all students for success in postsecondary education and training must include a range of indicators. At a minimum, the system should include the percentage of students: graduating having completed the course requirements to earn a rigorous college- and career-ready diploma, scoring at the college-ready level on high school assessments anchored to college- and career-ready standards, earning college credit while in high school (through AP, IB, and/or dual enrollment), and, upon entrance to a postsecondary institution, the percentage of high school graduates who require remedial coursework in reading, writing, or mathematics.

Achieve's annual survey of states found that half of the states use at least one of these critical college- and career-ready indicators in their accountability system (see www.achieve.org/ClosingtheExpectationsGap2011 for details). However, for an accountability system to truly reflect the goal of college and career readiness for all students it must use a rich, comprehensive set of indicators in multiple ways, including publicly reporting the data in a meaningful way, setting clear targets for schools to improve, and providing clear incentives and consequences that drive schools to improve performance and meet the established targets.

Despite some progress in states beginning to value college and career readiness in their accountability systems, for nearly half the states, federal accountability and state accountability are one in the same. That is, the state accountability system goes no farther than what the federal government requires. Given that reality, what the federal government requires for accountability matters. Current federal high school accountability, for example, requires state-set proficiency scores on state-developed, end-of-course or comprehensive reading and math tests once in high school and a measurement of graduation rates. This requirement is essentially silent on the level of expectations and certainly does not value or incentivize states that are organizing their education reform efforts around college and career readiness. In fact, current federal requirements - with the mandate of all students be proficient by 2014 and the sanctions for those schools and districts that fall short - may undermine the efforts of leading reform states.

The recent push for college and career readiness as the new norm requires state and federal accountability systems to change. As talks heat up amongst the "Big 8" on how and when to revise ESEA, this juncture in time provides an opportunity to shift both state and federal accountability models to measure and value college and career readiness. In the long run, Achieve believes that federal accountability should be aligned with college and career readiness in a way that current NCLB/ESEA accountability is not. Any reauthorization of ESEA should include enough flexibility or incentives for states to commit to leveraging their accountability systems to value college and career readiness. Achieve highlights a number of emerging best practices among state accountability systems in this year's Closing the Expectations Gap Report.

And change is urgent. Absent a change to current federal accountability provisions, the continued use of a narrow set of indicators that cannot measure whether students are on track to graduate ready for life after high school has real potential to undercut the successful transition to college and career readiness—including to the Common Core State Standards and common assessments.