Principals of elementary and middle-level schools welcome high standards of accountability for school improvement and student achievement, but contend that our nation’s current all-or-nothing yardstick for measuring performance is deeply flawed.
“We are required to operate—day in and day out—in today’s one-size-fits-all federal approach to accountability with little room for state and local input into such systems,” said A. Blaine Hawley, principal of Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air, MD. Hawley made her remarks in testimony before the House Committee on Education and the Workforce on Sept. 14, 2011, as Congress considers the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the legislation that regulates federal education policy and funding.
Hawley, the only principal on the four-person panel that also included a state secretary of education and two district superintendents, said that while NCLB (also known as ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act) has helped set high standards for education, it has done more harm than good.
A component of NCLB mandates that all students are 100 percent proficient in math and reading by 2014, a requirement that is unrealistic, unfair, and fails to accommodate critically important state and local contexts, Hawley said. Consequently, principals are now facing “punitive labels acquired from a federal mandate that inaccurately measures student performance” using the too-narrow results of standardized test scores, which she said represent a “single snapshot in time” of student achievement rather than a comprehensive assessment of performance in several subject areas over an academic year.
Despite the unrealistic mandate of NCLB, Hawley said she and her fellow principals welcome greater calls for accountability—as long as they are assessed on meaningful factors that support teaching and learning. “Many see our work as a calling,” she said. “We are not finger-pointers, disgruntled complainers, or spotlight-seekers. And we don’t pass the buck. The fact of the matter is clear-cut: We are, and always have been, highly accountable for what teachers teach, what students learn, and how schools perform.”
Hawley suggested seven factors members of Congress should consider in the upcoming reauthorization discussions to make accountability measures more balanced, fair, and accurate. A summary follows:
- The appropriate federal role in education is to promote equity and provide targeted resources to assist states and local districts. Federal policies should ask us to set high expectations, but also must support state- and locally-developed accountability systems, curriculum, and instruction to best meet the needs of students in the local school context.
- Principals support assessments in order to measure the progress of our students. But, federal policy must encourage and support state and local assessments that include growth models and multiple measures of student performance (both formative and summative) to accurately gauge social and emotional development, language fluency and comprehension, creativity, adaptability, critical thinking, and problem-solving skills.
- Assessment data should be used to inform instruction, be fair, flexible, and authentic, and reflect students’ progress toward academic proficiency.
- Standards, curriculum, and assessments must be closely aligned to be effective, and any assessment data must be available in a timely manner for practical or instructional use.
- Standardized assessment scores must never be used as the sole or primary criterion to measure student performance; to rate, grade, or rank principal, teacher, or school effectiveness; to allocate funds; or to take punitive measures against schools and/or school personnel.
- State and local systems must be measured in multiple ways to accurately capture students’ emotional and social development, language fluency and comprehension, creativity, adaptability, and critical thinking and problem-solving skills, in addition to proficiency in the core academic content areas.
- Measuring these factors and the many others that contribute to improved student outcomes must provide a complete picture, not by an up or down, pass-fail, standardized test score that is designed at the federal level and that has no regard for the multitude of ways students progress. Assessment using a single metric produces a one-dimensional view of the child, the teacher, the principal, and the school.
Hawley, a 26-year veteran educator, is principal of Red Pump Elementary School in Bel Air, Maryland. She is an NAESP member and is president of the Maryland Association of Elementary School Principals.