The accountability moratorium is here (Transitioning to the Common Core, part 1)

Many states across the nation are well underway with the challenging work of implementing the Common Core State Standards. But what does a thoughtful transition from existing to new standards look like? And what are the implications for accountability systems in the interim?

This past August and September, the research team at Fordham interviewed officials and policy advocates in five states—Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, Massachusetts, and New York—to get a sense of how they are approaching accountability in the transition to the Common Core. We asked stakeholders about their plans for using student data during this transition period, and in particular what the “stakes” would be for schools, educators, and students. While we found nuances in each state, four patterns emerged across our small sample. The first is discussed in this post, with three to follow over the next few weeks.

Punitive consequences associated with accountability are largely being put on hold during the transition to Common Core.

Policymakers and educators alike are grappling with the reality that the inputs (for example, state tests) used in accountability measures are changing—and they seem resistant to using student test data to trigger negative consequences usually associated with poor performance. Of particular concern is how to calculate growth as students transition from one exam to another and what to do about growth-based accountability and evaluation systems in the interim. So policymakers are, by and large, planning to pause the consequences associated with these systems.

Proponents of this tempered approach stress that it is simply smart implementation. They emphasize the difficulty of gauging student learning and calculating learning gains as assessments change from one year to the next, and they contend that until the new assessments can be validated, it’s unfair to base teacher and school evaluations on state standardized-test data. To wit, several states, including New York and Colorado, have formally adopted a “hold-harmless” approach to accountability in the transition, prohibiting high-stakes consequences until the Common Core have been fully implemented. Others are taking a similar approach to accountability.

An early adopter of the Common Core State Standards and a governing state in the PARCC consortia, New York recently instituted an accountability provision ensuring that no negative consequences (for students, teachers, schools, or districts) will be based on student test scores. Though the state’s current teacher- and principal-evaluation systems each include a measure of student performance, New York is encouraging “thoughtful usage” of student test data as opposed to using test scores as the sole basis for high-stakes decision making. The state has also “frozen” the status of focus schools (Title I schools that have the lowest achievement and graduation rates for accountability subgroups) and priority schools (schools among the lowest 5 percent in the state, based on student performance), meaning that schools will not be added to either category until the 2015–16 school year. Despite these moves, critics in the state still grump about accountability. State union leaders and American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten recently issued a call for a moratorium on high-stakes consequences for both students and teachers during the transition phase. It’s not clear to us why this call is even necessary; New York already appears to have adopted such a moratorium.

Colorado has taken a similar hold-harmless approach to accountability during the current school year. In previous years, teachers who received two sequential ineffective ratings were placed on probationary status. This year, student state test scores will still be included in teacher evaluations, but ineffective ratings will not count towards a teacher’s probationary status until the 2014–15 school year and no teacher will be put on probation until 2016–17. The state has also taken a gradual approach to transitioning its assessments. It began testing all students on standards common to both the old Colorado standards and the Common Core in 2011–12, and it will eventually transition to PARCC assessments in 2014–15. Despite this gradual conversion, however, the state remains cautious about how assessment results will be used. Officials made it clear that a deeper understanding of the test is needed, as well as time for the assessments to stabilize, before high-stakes decisions are made. One official noted this was to “ensure no one gets harmed during the transition.”

Many critics of the Common Core, especially those on the left, worry that the new, higher standards will be used to attack educators or schools. Yet, taken as a whole, our interviews with officials in five states indicate that concerns about educators, schools, and districts being unfairly penalized are unfounded, at least in these jurisdictions. Accountability systems remain in place, but the high-stakes aspects have been removed or muted, at least temporarily. State leaders are aggressively communicating this “accountability intermission” to educators. Will they be equally motivated to restore accountability policies when the transition is over?

For other entries in this blog series, see Part 2, Part 3, and Part 4.

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