What gets measured is what gets done: A vision for a new statewide accountability system

By Don Haddad, Ed.D., Superintendent

With over 90% of our nation’s children enrolled in a public school, our K-12 public education system has one of the largest impacts on the future growth and success of our communities, state, and nation. However, our current model of how we measure the quality of our schools and hold our districts accountable for advancing excellence falls woefully short of what is needed for Colorado students to maintain a strong competitive advantage in our complex, highly competitive, and globalized world. What should Coloradans expect and prioritize in their state K-12 accountability system to ensure high expectations, rigor, and a strong return on investment for one of our state’s most important assets? 

In the Legislative Audit Committee’s recent release of an evaluation of Colorado’s K-12 education accountability system, I believe that the auditors subjectively describe the state’s current accountability system as being “reasonable” and “working as designed,” however, it appears that the actual data in the report is in conflict with this description and demonstrates trends that should be of significant concern to all Coloradans. For example, the current accreditation system is designed to measure only outputs of student performance and does not account for the quality of inputs such as the programming, innovation, and instructional practices known to advance student achievement. When a standardized test is the dominant measure of school performance, there is a statistically significant difference in test score outcomes among the student sub-groups of those living in poverty and higher percentages of students with disabilities. This is true even in schools and districts with the highest accreditation ratings. This was clearly identified in the audit report and demonstrates that our accountability system is ignoring poverty and other important factors known to negatively influence test scores. This means that our system is not accurately measuring the quality of a school and the education students are receiving. Simply put, our current accreditation system measures family wealth instead of school quality.

We know that what gets measured is what gets done. The measures from which our public education systems are evaluated are where resources are mostly allocated, but if we aren’t measuring the right things, we are not leveraging our investments to drive innovation and the skills that our economy requires in this modern era. The measures of school accountability have gone widely unchanged for decades, while technology has advanced at an exponential rate, and as other industries in society continue to evolve to meet the pace of innovation. 

Given the misleading nature and narrow definition of success within the current system, educators may feel compelled to implement practices with the limited objective of raising a single test score, which can result in not providing students with a robust, comprehensive, and engaging educational experience. Thus, the system disincentivizes innovative programming, career pathways, advanced coursework, and rigorous graduation requirements – all key elements that are known to not only advance success for all students, but also to strengthen the economy and workforce pipeline, improve the quality of the service industry, increase intellectual capital and entrepreneurship, and foster a stronger Colorado for all.

It is time to design a new accountability system that isn’t simply “reasonable” for Colorado students, but rather exceptional. In addition to high standards and measures that include standardized assessment, we need to broaden our definition of school quality to provide opportunities for students, and equitably resource districts so that all students can thrive in our accelerated future. This should include accountability measures that incentivize rigorous graduation requirements, advanced coursework, workforce pathways, the recruitment and retention of a diverse and effective teaching staff, matriculation data of students entering quality postsecondary programs, participation in co-curricular activities and athletics, access to visual and performing arts programs, the financial stability of the district, the quality and safety of school facilities, and so much more. In addition to a single test score, these are also critical measures of the quality of a child’s education, and more accurately reflect the impact of a school or district. The data in the audit report also confirms much of this, reporting that schools with a higher number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses and Career and Technical Education pathways correlated to higher student test scores, while acknowledging that schools that primarily serve higher proportions of students in poverty had fewer of these opportunities. 

Our students deserve more than a “reasonable system,” but one that is highly effective and equitably demonstrates the potential and capacity of all students. Hard work, ingenuity, creativity, innovation, well-developed social skills, and self-confidence are important characteristics of those who succeed at the highest levels. We have numerous students and teachers in our public school systems who work tirelessly to overcome the challenges presented by a single standardized test score in order to thrive. This can only happen when students are provided extended opportunities that allow them to hone other important skills not prioritized or measured by our state accreditation framework. 

The future of our state and nation is in our public schools, and it is time that our accreditation system accurately reflects what is necessary to ensure a stronger future for all Coloradans, and ensure the best return on our state’s significant investment in our public schools. In closing, I have three simple questions that everyone must ask themselves. Does anyone not believe that poverty is a significant factor that negatively influences the results of a single standardized test score? Does anyone believe that taking an arbitrarily determined timed test in a language that is not your primary language, doesn’t have a negative impact on a single standardized test score? Does anyone believe that a disability won’t negatively impact your ability to score higher on a single standardized test? In recognizing the obvious answer to these questions, it is my hope moving forward that we can engage in a meaningful, productive dialogue designed to enhance our current accountability system, something that would benefit everyone in our society.

St. Vrain Valley Schools