Time to hold schools accountable

The No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) of 2002, the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), established statewide accountability systems requiring every public school to demonstrate Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) in raising student achievement in reading and math. NCLB rigidly defines AYP based primarily on static performance on reading and math tests. Next year, without change to the federal law, 80 percent or more of the nation’s public schools will be labeled as failing.

While certain concepts within NCLB are vital to continued progress, such as using student achievement to measure school, district, and state performance and disaggregating data to identify and help close achievement gaps, many elements of NCLB are not useful. That said, states are not backing away from accountability.

Under the leadership of the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO), states have joined forces to use a set of shared principles released this week to guide them as they build better and unique accountability systems. Despite any differences, all of these state systems will set the bar for student performance based on college- and career-ready standards. States will continue to make annual accountability determinations for schools and districts while focusing on student achievement, as measured by student performance and growth. The new systems will promote a deeper analysis of school performance to better gauge appropriate interventions for struggling schools. In adhering to these principles, our nation’s public schools and districts will be held accountable for promoting innovation, evaluation, and continuous improvement.

To date, 38 states have committed to developing and implementing next-generation accountability systems consistent with these principles, and CCSSO has created a multistate consortium to support this work. Each state will work to incorporate these core principles in the design of its own accountability system that is comparable across the states, but also tailored to the unique needs of its students and communities. This customization allows states to address demographic needs, leverage dramatic improvements in student achievement, and to evaluate and improve that system over time.  

This collective effort requires a different focus for the federal law, not just in accountability, but in the broad spectrum of education reform. Federal law should expect each state to promote college- and career-ready outcomes for all students with transparent accountability for results. But rather than a one-size-fits-all approach, federal law should remove NCLB's rigid AYP requirements and encourage state innovation while enforcing accountability consistent with the principles already endorsed by these 38 leading states.

We call on Congress to mirror bipartisan state leadership on these issues and reauthorize ESEA to support this state-led innovation. If reauthorization should be delayed, we welcome Secretary Duncan's willingness to explore using NCLB's waiver authority to collaboratively peer review and approve these new state-developed accountability models.

We encourage the Secretary to use NCLB’s waiver authority to provide an exciting pathway for states to devise and propose effective innovations that drive student achievement gains—rather than allowing the U.S. Department of Education to continue the law's one-size-fits-all approach recast through a new policy lens. This is an opportunity to improve accountability and structure federal law to spur state innovation and accountability. Our schools and our children cannot wait.

Tony Bennett is the superintendent of public instruction for the state of Indiana and Christopher Koch is the superintendent of education for the state of Illinois.