Next steps on accountability

Shael Polakow-Suransky

New York State took a major step toward implementing the Common Core State Standards this spring with new assessments designed to better measure critical thinking and problem solving. While the new tests certainly leave room for improvement, the new assessments are an important milestone in the shift towards pushing teachers to assign more cognitively challenging and engaging work.

This has been a long time coming.

Seven years ago, Mayor Bloomberg, writing in the Washington Post at the inception of New York City's accountability system, argued that it was critical for states across the country to set a higher standard and align expectations more closely to the rigorous National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

As we continue to translate the promise of these new standards into deep changes in what and how we teach, it's critical that we also reflect on what we've learned and consider ways to strengthen the system that is currently in place.

Our accountability system in New York City was designed to promote equity and strengthen the quality of our schools. It was crafted to push schools to make the right instructional decisions for all students and to inform the supports, interventions, and rewards provided to schools. This system is rooted in four core principles:

1.     Schools are compared to other schools serving similar students, providing a fair sense of what schools can achieve;

2.     Schools’ contribution to student learning is the primary emphasis—we use multiple measures that look at both absolute performance and growth, with a stronger emphasis on the progress schools make with their students;

3.     Schools are rewarded if they make progress with struggling students (e.g., students with disabilities, students who are learning English, or students who have fallen behind academically); and

4.     Schools are given meaningful autonomy and support so principals can make necessary changes to budget, schedules, professional development, curriculum, or hiring processes in response to the data.

These tools have helped to establish a shared understanding of success for students and schools and helped families choose the school that is the right fit for them. The results from the Progress Report (quantitative data) and the Quality Review (qualitative data) help to identify successful schools and areas of weakness. Since we introduced this spotlight on student learning, we have seen a 23 percent increase in four-year graduation rates and a 51 percent increase in college-readiness rates.[1]

Because of the promise our system has demonstrated, we have continually sought to make something strong even stronger. We, like district officials across the country, have listened and continue to listen to parents, teachers, and principals who have questioned whether the current system provides a full enough picture of what our schools accomplish and whether it leaves enough room for innovation, given that deeper changes often take longer to implement and can lead to temporary dips in performance. We've also been concerned about the risk of bad instructional decisions in some of our weaker schools, where shortcuts in the form of simplistic “skill-and-drill” test prep can substitute for a rich and rigorous curriculum.

Over the last few years, an ongoing dialogue about how to fine-tune our accountability system has led to changes in the Progress Report, including the introduction of measures of students’ readiness for college and careers and middle school course grades. We also have developed Where Are They Now reports with information on college enrollment and persistence, evolved the Quality Review Rubric to focus on what Richard Elmore calls the “instructional core,” and led a pilot program focused on evaluating student classwork. All of these efforts have been aimed at creating a broader range of data that can be used to evaluate school quality.

I believe it is possible to further strengthen our system by continuing to build on our core principles while addressing the aforementioned challenges. That’s why we are launching a pilot program this school year with a few of our top-performing school support networks and at least one charter-management organization. Similar to the ideas that Mike Petrilli outlined last spring, the pilot is designed to create flexibility for networks to introduce new measures based on their schools’ shared instructional goals that more accurately represent schools’ contributions to student learning and development. These measures will be based on research we’ve been doing over the past year in the following areas:

  • Measures of the quality of student classwork (e.g., research papers, extended essays, art, and science projects);
  • Measures that are based on other student outcomes, including student course outcomes, especially at the elementary and middle school level;
  • Measures that quantify elements of our school Quality Reviews (e.g., the quality of classroom instruction, student engagement, supports for teachers and families); and
  • Measures of student academic behaviors and mindsets that are associated with college and career readiness (e.g., persistence, ability to work in teams, effective communication, and organizational skills).

As is our common practice, we’ll test the ideas that emerge through this pilot to see if they should be applied more broadly. At the end of the day, this conversation on accountability is about how well our schools are supporting student learning and—most importantly—understanding how we can help them to do this even better. Similar to the evolution of state standards and assessments, our accountability system needs to grow and evolve as we grapple with the instructional shifts required by the Common Core. Young people in New York City and across the country have a right to be engaged in the deeper forms of learning they need to succeed in college and the jobs of the future. As educators, we have a lot of work ahead of us to deliver on that promise.

Shael Polakow-Suransky is chief academic officer for the New York City Department of Education.

[1] The percent of students who graduate in four years demonstrating proficiency in reading, writing, and math as defined by the City University of New York standards for passing out of remedial coursework.

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