(The following article appeared in the 15 March 2000 edition of the Saint Louis Post-Dispatch and is copyrighted by them. It is reproduced here only as a temporary measure for educational discussion purposes and will be removed as soon as the Post-Dispatch indexes it electronically for free public retrieval via the Internet.

Accountability is more than test scores

By Douglas B. Reeves


THE debate over educational accountability in Missouri comes perilously close to shedding more heat than light on the state of public education. On the sports page of this newspaper, readers rarely settle for a box score. They expect to read the story behind the headlines. Readers certainly expect something more insightful than, "The winning team had more points than the losing team" and, "If we would have had better players, we would have won the game." Unfortunately, the discussion of educational accountability sometimes substitutes cliches for insight.

Consider the late-January headline, "Half of school districts in Missouri fail annual tests." Parents and taxpayers are rightfully alarmed if this statement accurately describes a failed system. Teachers and administrators in the state are equally correct in expressing concern that neither the Missouri state test nor any single examination accurately reflects the quality of teaching and learning in a school. The debate is dominated by extreme views: One claims that the schools are utter failures. The other saying that the state accountability system cannot be trusted and that we should placidly accept that schools are doing about as well as they can, all things considered. We need to shun over-generalizations on both sides and inject some needed common sense into the discussion.

FIRST, accountability is more than test scores. Box scores are not sufficient to understand the success or failure of a sports team. Body temperature does not provide a comprehensive picture of human health. In every field of analysis, we need complete information, including quantitative and qualitative information, both statistics about test results and information on the underlying causes of those results. Moreover, the label of "failure" assigned by the slate does not allow a parent or legislator to distinguish between a school that is making significant improvement and one that is languishing.

SECOND, we dare not dismiss test results as irrelevant. The critics are right when they contend that we can and must do better. An alarming number of children in Missouri and throughout the nation are not reading on grade level and lack the writing and mathematical skills to succeed in any other academic area. Despite state academic "Show-Me" Standards that clearly indicate what is expected of students from kindergarten through high school, many schools do not provide instruction that is explicitly based on these standards. There is not a teacher or school leader in Missouri who does not want students to perform at a higher level. The Missouri test, warts and all, is better than tests used in many other states because it requires students to write, construct graphs and explain answers. While other states continue to force students to complete the bubble sheets of their parents' generation, Missouri's multiple-method assessment is a model that New York and California should consider.

THIRD, there are important models of success and significant improvement in our own back yard. These models are not obvious from a superficial analysis of test information. Consider two area school systems, both of which are doing outstanding work and can serve as models for other districts in the state. The Rockwood School District was properly labeled as a success by the state for its outstanding achievement in many areas. Although the district enjoys a significant number of economically advantaged students, the key to Rockwood's success lies not in demographics but in rigorous curriculum and consistent instructional strategies. The Riverview Gardens School District met five of the slate's 11 standards, and thus was lumped with the 51 percent of school systems that failed to meet the state's expectations. Teachers in this district not only can document the improvement of their students compared to previous years, but can do so between the beginning of the school year and now. Students and teachers in Riverview Gardens understand that they will not be labeled based upon last year's scores, but that their continuous improvement will be recognized.

Let us return to the sports-page analogy. What will every coach in the National Football League want to study this winter -- the Rams' victory parade, the box score of the Super Bowl, or the detailed strategies that transformed a team from failure to success?

Sterile reports of educational success and failure and their attendant acrimony will not advance education in Missouri.

Educational accountability that is comprehensive, meaningful and useful will move our educational system from uninformative labels and superficial headlines to strategies for future student success.

Douglas B. Reeves is president of the International Center for Educational Accountability, Denver. He has worked with the Cooperating School Districts and several St. Louis County school districts.

View index of teaching-related articles