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Letter to the House Education and the Workforce Committee on Accountability

May 06, 2013

Dear Representative:  

On behalf of the more than three million members of the National Education Association, we would like to offer the following views in connection with the May 7 hearing, “Raising the Bar: Exploring State and Local Efforts to Improve Accountability.”  

NEA urges Congress to consider existing state and local efforts on accountability within the context of Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) reauthorization. Simply put, the framework around ESEA has changed in the last several years—states are in a very different place than they were just two years ago as a result of changes spurred by Race to the Top (RTTT) and ESEA waivers issued by the U.S. Department of Education. At the very least, any reauthorization must take the current landscape into consideration.  

We believe that the federal role in the development of accountability systems must be appropriate and promote equity, but avoid becoming so prescriptive that there is no room for addressing local and state needs. In other words, states need the flexibility to create accountability systems that work, especially for those students most in need, without an overly heavy-handed federal approach. The introduction of the Common Core standards and assessments is adding yet another layer of complexity to the assessment and accountability conversation.  

Specifically, NEA supports:

  • Replacing Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) with a new accountability system. Determinations of school success should be based on multiple measures (see attachment (PDF icon PDF, 254 KB, 6 pp) NEA Policy Brief, “Multiple Indicators of School Effectiveness”). The new system should recognize schools making progress toward achieving learning goals, correctly identify struggling schools, and provide meaningful supports instead of punishment. It should also include continuous improvement plans that recognize areas of growth in all schools, identify innovative approaches, provide feedback on areas for growth or improvement, and identify schools that have significant achievement gaps or are persistently low-performing so that intensive resources, intervention, and support can be directed to them.

    The bottom line is that the new accountability system should be set up in a way that allows for continuous improvement. It should also retain the focus on the schools most in need of help, and be structured in a way that can provide such help. 
  • Accountability systems based on multiple measures of school performance. Student learning can be one indicator of school effectiveness, but it should not be measured solely by performance on one or two tests. Multiple, valid, and reliable measures of student learning should be used. Such measures could begin with a professional assessment by the classroom teacher and might also include district- and school-level assessments; classroom-level written, oral, performance-based, and portfolio assess­ments; and written evaluations. Valid measures of student learning should be developed with the agreement of teachers and other stakeholders, and should take into account the mul­tiple factors influencing a student’s learning.

    Other indicators of school performance should also be identified in cooperation with education stake­holders and might include, for example, graduation rates, attendance rates, and the number and percentage of students participating in rigorous coursework. School resources and processes should be reported in a transparent way—for example, funding, leadership, and staff experience; class size (student-teacher ratio); the number of National Board certified teachers; the number of certified counselors, nurses, and other support staff per student; school building and environmental ratings; school anti-bullying policies; access to courses with 21st century skills; professional development and instructional improvement strate­gies; parent engagement programs; and access to libraries, science laboratories, health care, nutritional meals, and before- and after-school programs. Transparency in this area is critical in order to ensure educational equity. 

We also wish to draw your attention to changes in the current ESEA landscape brought about by the development and rollout of Common Core standards and assessments, and their implementation in the states. The Common Core addresses inequities by providing a wide set of standards that ensure a complete education for all students. In turn, that should help increase the likelihood that students graduate from high school ready to proceed to the next phase of their lives.  

NEA is partnering with its affiliates on Common Core and other state standards to ensure educators’ voices and expertise are leading the effort to develop instructional materials that are relevant and engaging, and helping to develop the strongest next-generation assessments possible.  

But we must emphasize that decision makers at the federal, state, and local levels must do their part, too. Students must be tested on what is being taught in class and tests must be aligned with Common Core state standards. Only then will accountability systems be based on valid and reliable information.   

Lastly, we would like to reiterate our opposition to private school voucher programs within any ESEA reauthorization, and note the clarity of research showing vouchers are no panacea. In fact, claims that vouchers are a better approach to providing accountability are just plain wrong. According to multiple studies of the voucher programs in the District of Columbia and Milwaukee, students who are offered vouchers do not perform better in reading and math than their public school peers. The Louisiana voucher program has not yet been evaluated, but test scores that have been released show that in New Orleans, public school students outperform students who receive vouchers and attend private schools. Voucher advocates often point to higher graduation rates among voucher students as evidence of program effectiveness. Such analyses fail to account for extenuating factors such as the “peer effect” and attrition among the students least likely to graduate—they either flunk out of private schools or are “counseled out.” 

Getting accountability right is possibly the most fundamental element of ESEA reauthorization. We thank the committee for examining this issue and look forward to continuing this conversation with you.  

Sincerely,  

Mary Kusler
Director, Government Relations