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Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right

reviewed by Leslie S. Kaplan & William A. Owings - January 15, 2009

coverTitle: Grading Education: Getting Accountability Right
Author(s): Richard Rothstein, Rebecca Jacobsen, and Tamara Wilder (Eds.)
Publisher: Teachers College Press, New York
ISBN: 0807749397, Pages: 280, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

Politicians and policy makers have rushed to develop accountability systems that might increase public service efficiency without giving enough thought to whether these systems actually measure what they should. Test scores alone should not – and cannot – define school effectiveness. Exclusively quantitative accountability systems in a wide variety of fields result in goal distortion and gaming, corrupting the very processes they intend to monitor. This is not news. What would be news is a feasible plan for better accountability. In Grading Education. Getting Accountability Right, Richard Rothstein and his colleagues offer a relevant perspective and some promising ideas.

In Grading Education, Rothstein, Jacobsen, and Wilder credibly argue that in spite of No Child Left Behind’s (NCLB) assessment mania, testing alone does not address the goals that our society values. Using engaging examples from business, government, and education, the authors explain why NCLB’s narrow focus on reading and mathematics achievement scores does not work and provide suggestions for an improved and workable public accountability system. The authors intend to provoke discussion about accountability that will help to move policy forward.

Grading Education’s organization. The authors arrange their presentation into eight chapters and four appendices. Chapter 1, The outcome goals of American public education, reviews how American leaders have historically thought about educational goals and summarizes these traditions in eight broad areas (of which basic reading and mathematics skills are only part of one) for accountability. Chapter 2, Weighing the goals of public education, reports on a newly commissioned survey to determine how today’s American public and elected representatives appraise the education goals that have been part of our national consensus. After determining each goal’s relative weight for accountability, the authors find that academic areas receive a little more than half the emphasis while citizenship, social skills and physical and emotional health behaviors receive the rest.

Chapter 3, Goal distortion, describes how holding schools accountable for math and reading test scores has created incentives for educators to narrow the curriculum to areas tested. These practices are especially harmful to minority and disadvantaged students. Chapter 4, Perverse accountability, analyzes other test-based accountability flaws, explaining how test error creates anomalies such as rewarding a school one year and punishing it the next – with no changes in school effectiveness. The authors deflate the notion that achieving “proficiency” can be both a minimum and a challenging standard at the same time.  

Chapter 5, Accountability by the numbers, provides illustrations from health care and job training to best-seller lists and college rankings to show that accountability based on easily measured short term outcomes harms the institutions being monitored. The authors argue that many errors and distortions in test-based accountability at the state and national levels could have been avoided if education policy makers had considered the experiences of those in other sectors. Chapter 6, Early NAEP, reviews the development of the National Assessment of Educational Progress whose underlying concepts and methodology offer what the authors consider to be a sophisticated model for developing a wider, more balanced and meaningful educational index.   

Chapter 7, School boards, accreditation, and Her Majesty’s Inspectors, recounts how American school boards evolved and discusses how school accreditation can be adapted to improve democratic school accountability. England’s school inspection system is described as a possible model for our own improved accountability. Chapter 8, An accountability system for schools and other institutions of youth development, outlines an accountability system for American schools and other institutions of youth development. This proposal would limit the federal government to helping low-wealth states develop the fiscal capacity to provide adequate education and gathering valid and reliable information on relative performance in students in various states. The proposed plan would also create an expanded NAEP and design a visitation system which would include public schools, high quality early childhood care, health services, and after-school and summer programs. The authors address the cost of such an accountability system and show how costs for this improved system would be about one-half of one percent of current federal, state, and local spending on elementary and secondary education: expensive but not unrealistic.  

The Appendices contribute almost twenty percent of the book’s overall text to support, extend, and clarify the reasoning. Appendix 1, Schools as scapegoats, describes why school performance is not responsible for the nation’s economic difficulties.  Appendix 2, A Broader, Bolder Approach to Education, asks readers to rethink their assumptions that public schools, by themselves, can close the entire achievement gap between students of different backgrounds. Appendix 3, Goals survey methodology, reviews the procedures used to collect the 2007 national data on educational goals. In Appendix 4, Teacher accounts of goal distortion, 14 self-selected teachers give voice to how their schools’ narrowing focus on reading and math skills meant abandoning non-tested subjects and the impact for disadvantaged and gifted students.

A pragmatic orientation. Rothstein and his colleagues tightly frame their argument within 250 years of mainstream American political and educational thought. Using many historical examples, they show that from our nation’s beginning, Americans have largely endorsed a balanced public education curriculum for accomplishing a broad set of eight academic and non-academic outcomes:  basic academic knowledge and skills, critical thinking, appreciation of the arts and literature, preparation for skilled work, social skills and work ethic, citizenship and community responsibility, physical health, and emotional health.  

The authors persuasively demonstrate that NCLB’s narrow accountability focus on reading and math test scores visibly stands outside this “historic consensus.” They marshal educational thoughts and goals from national leaders, education experts, policy makers, and the public – including Benjamin Franklin, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Horace Mann, the Cardinal Principles Report, John Goodlad, and the Gallup Poll, among others – to build and strengthen their case. They explain how many reforms popular today were proposed 40 years ago, tried, and abandoned.  

To construct their argument, the authors consistently choose pragmatism over ideology. One anecdote shows policy makers deliberately ignoring testing experts’ advice about the limits of determining school accountability from achievement test data. When early studies showed that NAEP’s math proficiency levels were set unreasonably high, one NAEP official explained that he would not accept this expert advice. Instead, he asserted that the “realism” of proficiency cut scores was less important than the desirable impact on public psychology of demonstrating that large numbers of students were failing. Likewise, the authors observe that political figures find it easier to commission a second study when the first study’s findings do not advance their prescribed agenda. Conclusion: the political goals of building a sense of urgency for national improvement have too often trumped the educational goals of providing valid and reliable assessments or meaningful accountability.

With a shrewd jujitsu, Rothstein and his colleagues twirl high profile public education critics against NCLB’s narrow testing accountability.  They show how A Nation at Risk, a 1983 report that actively disparaged America’s schools, actually criticized the growth of tests that assessed only basic reading and computation skills at the expense of critical thinking and reasoning and expressed concern about the “intellectual, moral, and spiritual strengths of our people” (The National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983). Similarly, the authors recount how political pressure from the left and right exerted on NAEP test developers influenced them to reject reading passages about a friendly dolphin because it might discriminate against students who did not live near the ocean; exclude a passage about an old woman whose overloaded bicycle fell over because it might stereotype old women as having poor judgment; and avoid any assessment of students’ personal judgment or views on controversial issues because that would be “snooping on American children.”  

Implicit in these discussions are the authors’ appeals for common sense and common ground. Grading Education does not address curriculum, instruction, or assessment with a particular philosophical lens. Instead, it decries how the consequences of poorly conceived and designed accountability systems deny all students – from high achieving and gifted to those traditionally underserved – access to the full range of knowledge and skills they need to become successful citizens and workers in a complex world. Developing an accountability system for a balanced set of education outcomes, they reason, serves everyone’s best interests.

Contributions to the field.  Focusing on short-term test score measures of basic skills short-changes other equally important educational ends. No Child Left Behind, the authors assert, has given accountability a bad name. Continuing the rhetoric of test-based accountability will erode support for public education and weaken the education it intends to examine. With No Child Left Behind almost two years overdue for reauthorization in 2009, Rothstein’s energetic and relatively dispassionate discussion is most timely.

Grading Education proposes a new accountability policy for schools that has the potential to address the wider goals which our nation has deemed important for students to master, raise student achievement, and substantially reduce the achievement gap. Getting a true picture of student progress requires a mix of objective and subjective evaluative tools. Feasible models for improved educational accountability can help policy makers and educators seriously rethink how best to assess America’s public school students.  Grading Education is ready to provoke a deep, thoughtful, and complex discussion about where we as educators, policy makers, and a nation historically concerned about education tied to key American values for all students go from here.  


The National Commission on Excellence in Education. (1983, April). A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform: A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: January 15, 2009
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15482, Date Accessed: 10/22/2021 9:28:40 PM

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About the Author
  • Leslie Kaplan

    LESLIE S. KAPLAN, Ed.D., a retired school administrator, is an education researcher and writer. She serves on the editorial board for the National Association of Secondary School Principals’ Bulletin. She and William A. Owings, Ed.D. have coauthored two dozen articles in refereed professional journals, written several books, monographs, and book chapters about teacher quality, school leadership, school finance, effective schools, and student achievement. She and Dr. Owings are currently completing an educational foundations textbook for Wadsworth/Cengage and are co-editors-in-chief of the Journal for Effective Schools.
  • William Owings
    Old Dominion University
    E-mail Author
    WILLIAM A. OWINGS, Ed.D., is a professor of educational leadership at Old Dominion University in Norfolk, Virginia. A former principal, assistant superintendent, and division superintendent, Dr. Owings has served 20 years on the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development’s national board. He serves on the editorial advisory board of Journal for School Finance. With Dr. Kaplan, Dr. Owings’ research agenda includes the impact of teacher quality, principal quality and fiscal effort on student achievement. Dr. Owings and Dr. Kaplan are the 2008 co-recipients of the Virginia Educational Research Association’s Charles Edgar Clear Award for Consistent and Significant Research and Scholarship.
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