President’s Corner

Accountability for Student Success

by Don W. Hooper

Imagine you are a 4th-grader in a classroom where children seem happy, the teacher seems relaxed, parents are actively involved in school activities and, as far as you know, your education program is in good hands. You rarely may know the objective, but you take the normal teacher-made test and the annual achievement test, and as long as you are making good grades in class you aren't concerned about the rest of the world.

 

Some distance away your cousin, also a 4th-grader whose parents are similarly involved in school, is in a totally different learning environment. The children in that classroom also are happy. The atmosphere while not relaxed is energized because the teacher, the students and the parents all know the learning objectives and goals and the assessment that will verify their success.

This second learning environment is one focused on preparation for high-level performance and the resulting exhilaration one feels from having succeeded. Failure or success on a test is merely the benchmark that reflects your cousin's current progress, not labels that stigmatize her capabilities. In short, this is a system that guarantees the youngster's likelihood of success.

In this scenario, both students trust they are experiencing a high-quality educational program. Both are enjoying their experiences. However the philosophies behind the two educational systems differ greatly. Which student will longitudinal data show is not well prepared for life, and which is far ahead in the quest for making a living and succeeding at life?

The first student is part of an educational system geared to avoid high-stakes testing and the other is in a system that monitors progress systematically against predetermined standards. Assuming the standards are set properly, I believe the first student will have a happenstance opportunity for success, whereas the second student will have a significant opportunity for success-because the system wins every time.

This should not be a debate about high-stakes testing or a crusade to demonize accountability for results in K-12 education. This is about the responsibility of public school leadership to design and implement a system to promote maximum learning by students.

To realize success, you must measure it. When you measure it, regardless of the day or time of year, there will be consequences. Some will pass and some will fail. Both outcomes should be used to calibrate the system of teaching and learning to further the students' learning. The likelihood of lasting failure is greater in a system that is not organized around predetermined objectives, where the objectives are not measured effectively and are not used to adjust how the system operates.

I have witnessed firsthand what an accountability system can do to raise the achievement and development levels for all-and I do mean all students. My district, Fort Bend Independent School District, the state's 10th largest, is a Texas Education Agency "Recognized" school district. Our more than 56,000 students come from 25 countries and speak 65 different languages at home. We are very diverse.

Since 1995 the passage rates in reading of our African American students increased from 67.6 percent passing to 88.1 percent. Hispanic students' passage rates rose from 69.3 percent to 85.7 percent. White students went from 91.9 percent to 97.4 percent passing, and our economically disadvantaged students' scores rose from 67.6 percent to 83 percent passing.

Similar results have been achieved in mathematics and writing. Combined passage rates for all Fort Bend students tested in spring 2001 are as follows: reading, 92.7 percent; math, 92.5 percent; and writing, 91.8 percent. Ninety-three percent of our students are reading on grade level by 3rd grade. These are our Texas Assessment of Academic Skills test results. Additionally, our National Assessment of Educational Progress scores are up, and our increasing ACT and SAT scores surpass state and national averages.

In addition, the percentage of Fort Bend students who take the college-entrance tests, including minority students, is among the highest in the country (85 percent).

I cite these statistics not to brag about my school district, although our board, staff, students and community are rightfully proud of our accomplishments. At a time when some demonize accountability systems that measure student progress, my point here is to illustrate how others use these systems to significantly increase student progress.

According to Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the performance of 4th-grade students in Texas on the NAEP equals or exceeds non-minority scores in some other states. That not only closes the original achievement gap, it also creates another one where the white student scores of those states are below the minority student scores in Texas, where we have a statewide accountability system.

During my term as AASA president, I have had the opportunity to meet with leading educators nationally and internationally. Most of those who speak the loudest against strong accountability systems are those who have the least experience with them. Or perhaps they have had experience with poorly designed systems. Most of those with extensive experience working with strong accountability systems are the strongest advocates. They know firsthand that the systems improve student success.

Our role is to properly design systems that will lead to successful outcomes for students. Properly designed systems must be built over time. The Texas journey has been a 20-year experience. Positive results can be seen in just a few years. However, patience, plus the engagement of all stakeholders, is necessary for proper system design.

Last summer the AASA Resolutions Committee drafted the following accountability resolution for your consideration:

"AASA supports accurate state-level accountability systems designed, developed, measured and reported in order to improve the academic achievement of each student. We believe such systems should include:

1. A development process that includes educational leaders, business leaders and broad-based community involvement.

2. Multiple measures of student success.

3. A common body of essential knowledge and skills developed by all stakeholders in each state.

4. Funding for intervention programs and services necessary for improving student achievement.

5. Early childhood education programs in collaboration with other agencies that provide readiness for preschoolers.

6. A solid infrastructure for continuous improvement that includes curriculum audits, alignment of the written, taught and tested curriculum and professional development.

7. Comparisons of school or district performance based on data from comparable districts or schools.

8. Incentives for improvement gains or consistent high performance and sanctions for continued failure to meet established goals and standards.

9. A monitoring process that accounts for normal variations by using valid and reliable statistical measures."

Suffice it to say, I am a proponent of well-designed systems that actually do something for students. My theme this year as AASA president is "Shaping the Future, One Child at a Time." It can be done. It is being done. And you can do it, too!

Don Hooper is president of AASA.