Sunday, March 7, 2010

Balancing Accountability and Learning

In one of my classes lately we have been having a very interesting discussion about how our traditional education systems measure success.  We have been discussing the two purposes for testing, for internal accountability (learning) and external accountability (systemic performance) and it is important to remember both are valid. 
Applying theory to practice however, the reality is that problems occur when the focus on external accountability is confused with internal accountability (Campbell & Levin, 2007).

As a school administrator, my number one focus has to be on how well our students learn.  As a taxpayer, I am concerned that my tax dollars, significant as they are, are used wisely in my province. It is legitimate to expect a focus on both, but we need to accept this fact and work with it in our schools.

Some teachers feel pressured by teaching test grades/subjects while others do not.  I think this is in part due to the leadership in the school.  The attitude and leadership re: tests that is modelled by school administrators creates the culture that influences how test results are accepted. 
Unfortunately, it is a reality that some administrators apply intense focus on test results resulting in teachers feeling pressured to produce scores that may come at the expense of other issues.  In some cases, this pressure comes from Central Office, and in others it is not necessarily intentional, as actions often speak louder than words.  Regardless of the reason, the tension between accountability and learning is something school leaders need to understand well.

A frequent comment is that test results are influenced by the work of all teachers leading up to that grade.  For the kids that have been in the school the whole time, that is true, but it does not apply to students new to the grade/school that year.  It is another reality that when the results of one or two teachers are analyzed by the entire school, some teachers may feel a sense of personal pressure that their work is under the microscope.  As leaders, it is important for us to attend to their concerns and help create the culture of shared internal accountability and focus on learning.

Campbell and Levin (2007) describe this as a need to balance pressure and support, where we accept the internal/external accountability focus and also focus on capacity building within our own schools.  Our schools need to take the testing programs we have in place and use that data as part of a school's comprehensive assessment plan.  Using test results as assessment for learning is what is needed to improve the performance of our own students.  It is up to us as educational leaders to wrestle with these many issues and put them together to be able to make a difference for our students!  We need to have a vision for how accountability and learning can peacefully coexist, and we have to have deep knowledge of systemic and local needs to help support this vision.

Now, having said all that, I wonder about tweaks to our provincial testing program that might help us meet both needs.  I have written previously about the possibility of using sampling as a way to achieve external accountability.  That would take our ability to use test results to inform our own practices in schools however.  Instead, what about rewriting our tests and administering them closer to the start of the year?  We could have results in time to influence the teaching of those specific students, and by taking a longitudinal approach to the results we could track how schools are progressing over time. 

Just an idea....


Campbell, C., & Levin, B. (2009). Using data to support educational improvement. Educational Assessment, Evaluation & Accountability, 21(1), 47-65.


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