Education metrics leave out key variable - resources

By Ralph Martire
Guest columnist
Posted4/12/2015 1:00 AM

Whether it's the Beltway or Springfield, it seems increasingly difficult for elected officials to cross party lines and reach consensus on issues that really matter -- with one notable exception. Nearly everybody, liberal, conservative, or somewhere in between, supports holding public schools "accountable" for educating students. Unfortunately, broad consensus hasn't resulted in sound policy. Indeed, the accountability systems at both the federal and state levels are fundamentally flawed.

By now, most people are familiar with the largely discredited, high-stakes testing approach to accountability adopted under the federal "No Child Left Behind" legislation. Ostensibly to ensure all children -- irrespective of race, ethnicity or income level -- are learning, NCLB requires every school district in each state to demonstrate "adequate yearly progress" in student achievement on standardized tests. The glitch is, NCLB compares the performance of children currently in a specific grade to the performance of different students who were in that grade during the preceding year.


How completely different cohorts of students performed on standardized tests given in different years reveals nothing about the efficaciousness of the education being offered -- given that one class could contain children particularly adept at math, while next year's class could be particularly challenged by reading. It also creates the incredibly perverse incentive of encouraging schools to teach to the test, rather than create a rigorous learning environment that promotes critical thinking skills and problem solving.

Illinois' stab at accountability under the new Common Core curriculum is better, since it doesn't focus solely on high-stakes tests (although still too heavily weighted in that area) and incorporates a more meaningful way to evaluate student performance, by tracking how the same set of students' progress academically over time.

Despite these advantages over federal law, however, Illinois' accountability regimen nonetheless remains fundamentally flawed, because it fails to include any metrics to evaluate "resource" accountability.

Think about it. It simply isn't possible to have an educational system -- or any venture for that matter -- that can be accountable for generating desired outcomes, unless that system has the capacity to do so. And while that may seem obvious, the resource/capacity issue is rarely, if ever, included when accountability metrics are sussed out.

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This in turn means current accountability systems inevitably identify false negatives about what's not working in public education. Consider, for instance, teacher evaluation.

Under most accountability systems, teacher evaluation is predominantly based on how students perform on standardized tests. While this appears to be objective, in reality it's anything but. That's because if a given school doesn't have the resources required to meet the educational, social and emotional needs of the children who attend it, what exactly do standardized test scores of its students indicate about any particular teacher's skills? The answer is not much. Indeed, if a school lacks the resources needed to create the educational environment required for a teacher to be effective, then chances are student test scores won't be up to snuff, irrespective of an individual teacher's skills.

The failure to assess resources in education accountability matrices is particularly frustrating, given that there's substantial evidence identifying those practices which have a statistically meaningful correlation to enhancing student achievement, reducing dropout rates, promoting critical thinking and creating public K-12 systems with the capacity to graduate students college and career ready.

We even know how to cost those practices out, adjusting for specific demographics of a particular school. Hence, implementing an accountability regimen that evaluates whether a particular school has the resources required to generate desired outcomes is eminently doable.

So why hasn't it been done? The answer is politics. See, if an accountability analysis showed that a school didn't have the resources to generate desired educational outcomes, the blame would shift from the school to the politicians who failed to provide it with adequate resources. And politicians prefer to avoid accountability for their actions, even when demanding it of others.

Ralph Martire,, is executive director of the Center for Tax and Budget Accountability, a bipartisan fiscal policy think tank.

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