Home Articles Reader Opinion Editorial Book Reviews Discussion Writers Guide About TCRecord
transparent 13

The Promise of Accountability and Standards in the Achievement of Equal Educational Opportunity

by Edmund W. Gordon - 1995

The article discusses the recent history of development in accountability in a variety of educational settings, focusing on the national standards for educational achievement and the complexity of problems in setting those standards. The article highlights student diversity, cultural pluralism, and the development of equitable systems of educational assessment. (Source: ERIC)

The modern history of accountability in education dates back to the early 1980s with the Chief State School Officers' efforts to come to agreement on a few key indicators of the quality of educational productivity in the public school sector. The focus was on reading, math, writing, and attendance. This modern history was preceded by modest efforts at the turn of the century and slightly before mid- century by some of the discipline-based associations and accrediting groups to specify minimal offerings in elementary and secondary schools. These earlier efforts at standardizing the curriculum also included efforts by the College Entrance Examination Board and the College Testing Service to standardize the process of and standards for admission to college. These efforts had important implications for educational standard setting, but explicit attention given to standards for educational achievement in the United States is a late-twentieth- century development.

In a related effort, the then U.S. Office of Education in the mid- sixties developed the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) under the leadership of then Commissioner Francis Keppel. Ralph Tyler was asked to provide leadership in the development of an assessment system that could enable the nation to determine what American students know and know how to do. Although this was a major assessment effort, the determination of criteria or standards for such a system was required. NAEP has emerged as the nation's principal source of information concerning the extent to which elementary and secondary schools are producing educational achievements related to patterns of such achievement in other nations.

In 1990, the chancellor of the New York City public schools issued what were, perhaps, the nation's first minimum standards for elementary and secondary schools. These standards, recommended by a blue ribbon commission, were directed at levels of productivity for the schools of the city. The standards specified attendance rates, number of school disturbances, percentages of students passing specific achievement tests, and percentage of students passing the New York State Regents' Examinations. In addition to these outcomes, the standards also provided that schools were to be held to progress standards applied to students in the bottom achievement percentiles. For those students whose achievement was lowest, schools were to be required to demonstrate specified annual gains, even if the standards for achievement were not met. Individual schools were to be held accountable for meeting these standards. The report of the commission was prophetic in that it called for greater attention to be given to symmetry between student outcomes and staff/school inputs (opportunity to learn), to the specification of the quality of course content, and to the improvement of the instruments and procedures of assessment. This work in New York City was driven by a concern for student, school, and staff accountability.

The developments in New York City were followed by the movement within the council of governors of the nation's states to build a national agenda for school reform, with assessment and accountability at its center. Major initiatives were begun in the states of Arkansas, California, Kentucky, Maryland, South Carolina, and Vermont. Declaring himself the "Education President," George Bush seized the education issue with his Education 2000, the enunciation of five goals for the nation's schools, and for a brief while focused on a national educational achievement test as the centerpiece of his initiative. National standards and a national education test were expected to drive upward the quality of educational achievement in this country. It never became clear whether the expectation was that the standards would model and challenge schools to greater productivity, or that low results from a national test would threaten embarrassment sufficient to push schools to higher levels of achievement. What was clear was that the "Education President's" agenda for education did not include more money, only greater accountability.

Thus much of the modern accountability movement has been about the specification of expectations and standards for improvement in the educational achievement of students. Little national attention has been given to specifications for or the actual improvement of the capabilities of schools and their staffs. Almost as an anticipation that these efforts would not work, the so-called choice movement emerged. The advocates of choice appear to have concluded that the public sector simply cannot serve adequately the education requirements of the society. Their solution is to privatize schooling. If their pessimism were justified, privatization is one possible solution. However, we know that excellent education can be provided through the public sector. We also know some of the problems that privatization produces for the human services. Health care comes to mind. Here we have a national capacity for quality health care that is, perhaps, unmatched in the world. Yet our delivery of such care, filtered through an essentially private system, is hardly competitive with that of some Third World nations. In such a climate, it is interesting and somewhat discouraging that the movement toward standards should be focused so sharply on the productivity of students and not on the quality of the system by which academic achievement is enabled.

In the current educational reform movement, attention has been focused on the establishment of higher standards for educational achievement, and improved instruments and procedures for educational assessment. The New York State Council on Curriculum and Assessment is an atypical example of this movement. The council has been charged with responsibility for making recommendations directed at strengthening the curriculum of elementary and secondary schools in the state, and improving the system by which educational achievement is assessed. General concern has been expressed for ensuring that our new and higher standards are universal, that is, that they apply to all of our students and that they be equitable, in the sense that the imposition of these standards not treat unfairly any of our students, and especially those students with whom our schools have traditionally been less than successful.

Movement in support of higher standards and effort directed at improved assessment have proceeded at a faster rate and with greater clarity than has concern for the provision of sufficient opportunities to learn, and the enablement of equity in educational assessment procedures. Yet any realistic examination of the demographic trends in the nation reveals that the goals of educational reform cannot be achieved without real progress in the achievement of a higher degree of equity in the educational productivity of our state and nation. It is thus for practical as well as moral reasons that our curriculum and assessment review and reform must take seriously a commitment to equity.

The current debate concerning the appropriateness of a set of national standards for educational achievement in the United States has been coupled with a renewed debate concerning the utility of standardized testing (a) in the monitoring of educational progress and (b) as a basis for credentialing for a wide variety of purposes. Unfortunately, for those of us who prefer to deal with simple problems, this one is complex beyond measure. Yet the work of the national standards-setting efforts cannot proceed far without the serious engagement of these complex issues.

One source for this complexity is the ubiquitous distortions that flow from classism, nationalism, racism, sexism, and other forms of chauvinism in our society. These distortions have been traditionally thought to be unrelated to the processes of education and educational assessment. This is because the tendency has been to focus on the impact of racism or sex-ism on the persons who are the targeted victims of such communicentric biases rather than on the social processes and institutions that reflect those biases. But all of us and all segments of our society are victims or possible victims. The distortions and otherwise negative fallouts have an impact on practically all that we seek to do. Nowhere is this more obvious than in our efforts to educate diverse populations effectively and to assess educational needs and outcomes in people whose life conditions, experiences, and values differ from those that have achieved hegemony in the society.

It is to the credit of many of the recent efforts at reform in education and the education measurement community that several of us have agreed tn try to engage seriously the possible implications of diversity in human characteristics for more adequate and hopefully more equitable systems of education and assessment. Implicitly, we seem to have agreed to try to make teaching, learning, and assessment procedures more authentic with respect to what we know about learning and human competence, as well as with respect to the educationally relevant characteristics of the various populations whose members must be educated and assessed. The concern with pedagogy has concentrated on the establishment of higher standards for all students and the diversification of approaches to the achievement of these standards. The concern with authentic measures has focused on the development of assessment probes that require performance--that is, that the respondeat do things to demonstrate competence and understanding as in solving problems or explaining relationships. However, this shift to higher achievement standards and from more static measures of ability to performance measures of developed competence may not be sufficiently responsive to the diversity in populations served by our schools. Our concern for authentic and effective reform also requires that we recognize that the members of these various populations live their lives in multiple contexts, and that authenticity may vary not only with population characteristics but also with these varied contexts. Thus, in modern societies authenticity requires that competence be achieved and measured by multiple criteria met by the same person functioning in multiple contexts. This is readily seen in relation to languages, where those of us who are monolingual are increasingly disadvantaged in a multilingual world, or in relation to cultures where we often fail to understand people who see and react to the world in ways that differ from the culture each of us happens to know.

This sensitivity to diversity and pluralism has not been reflected in our concern with universal standards of achievement. Increasingly we hear the assertion that all children can learn at high levels of achievement, but we hear little of the call for a guarantee of adequate and appropriate opportunities to learn. Rather, such claims are actively resisted in some circles. There are some who are sympathetic to high standards and rigorous assessment, but insist that it is immoral to begin by measuring outcomes before we have seriously engaged the equitable and sufficient distribution of inputs, that is, opportunities and resources essential to the development of intellect and competence.

The development of such opportunities and the making available of such resources may require a higher level of understanding of the dimensions of the problems with which we are faced. Toward that end, some clarification of the relevant constructs may be helpful.

Diversity in human characteristics refers to differences in position or status and differences in function. Status defines one's position in a social hierarchy and that status or position often determines one's access to sociopolitical power and material resources. Status influences access to opportunities and rewards. It influences how other people treat you, what others expect of you, and too often what one expects of oneself. Traditionally, differential status has been assigned based on social class and caste, ethnicity and race, gender and sex, language and national origin, and a host of other less prominent social dividers. Diversity in functional characteristics refers lo the how of behavior, the manner in which behavior is manifested, the way people act. These functional characteristics may be colloquially associated with certain status groups, but the manner of behavior is not invariably associated with status. We include among functional characteristics such traits as culture, cognitive style, temperament, interest, identity, and motivation.

Pluralism refers to the social demand for the demonstration of multiple, concurrent competencies in situationally relevant contexts. We recognize pluralistic demands most readily with respect to cultures and languages. Those who are bilingually and multilingually competent have clear advantages over us poor monolingual folk in our rapidly shrinking world. Too many of us are fighting, chauvinistically, against it, but what thinking person fails to recognize the importance of multicultural competence and multiperspectivist thought? Pluralism implies the recognition of diverse routes to the mastery of both universal and population-specific standards.

Equity speaks and refers to fairness and social justice. It is to be distinguished from equality, which references sameness and the absence of discrimination. Rawls eloquently reminds us that one of the fundamental tenets of social justice is unequal distribution that favors the weaker members of the society. In societies of unequal members, equal distribution is not equitable. Equity requires that the distribution of resources be sufficient to the condition that is being treated. If I need penicillin and you need tetracycline, and the hospital gives us both penicillin, you may be treated equally, but it certainly cannot be claimed that you have been treated equitably. Or if I need three doses and you need one of the same medicine, and we are both given one dose, I would be treated equally, but I would also have been deprived of what is sufficient to my need and thus treated inequitably.

It is becoming more and more obvious that these sources of variance in human populations influence:

1. the motivation to engage academic learning and to master its content;
2. opportunities to learn and be reinforced by academic competence and literacy;
3. the conditions in and under which knowledge and skills are learned, and attitudes and dispositions are developed; and
4. the nature of the processes by which academic attitudes, dispositions, knowledges, and competencies are assessed.

Thus it can be argued that one of the most complex problems with which we are faced as we generate educational standards and improve educational assessment in the interest of greater accountability in education is this problem of the concurrent honoring of diversity, pluralism, and equity. The challenge is to arrive at, and enable students to meet, standards that are high, plural, universal, and equitable, and to hold all of students, staff, and systems alike-- accountable for doing so.

Support for the preparation of this article was provided by the College Entrance Examination Board through an arrangement between the board and the Institute for Research on the African Diaspora in the Americas and the Caribbean at the City College of New York. The opinions expressed, however, are those of the author and are not to be understood as the official position of either institution.


1 John Rawls, A Theory of Justice (London: Oxford University Press, 1973).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 4, 1995, p. 751-756
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 31, Date Accessed: 1/19/2022 11:48:39 PM

Purchase Reprint Rights for this article or review
Member Center
In Print
This Month's Issue