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Accountability Policies

Implications for School and Classroom Practices

Jane Hannaway, Laura Hamilton
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Document date: October 16, 2008
Released online: October 21, 2008

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This paper reviews the research literature associated with the implications of performance-based accountability policies for school and teacher behaviors. It examines what is known about both possibly productive responses, such as focused effort on valued subjects, and non-productive responses, such as teaching to the test, induced by performance-based accountability systems.


This paper focuses on school- and classroom-level responses to performance-based accountability. While the ultimate outcome of interest of education accountability policies is student achievement, a focus on intermediary outcomes—such as school and classroom behavior—has important policy implications in its own right for reasons discussed below. This paper is one of six papers prepared for the U. S. Department of Education in response to Section 1503 of the No Child Left Behind legislation requiring that the U. S. Department of Education provide an interim report to Congress on the effects of the law.


The last two decades have witnessed a marked shift in education policy from a focus on changes in inputs and process to a focus on outcomes—in particular, student achievement as measured by test performance. Key states, including Texas, North Carolina, Kentucky, Maryland, and Florida, broke the path in the late 1980s and 1990s by holding schools accountable for the learning of their students. In 2001 the policy went national. Congress passed the landmark No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) requiring that schools and school districts across the country be held accountable for student performance. States must set targets for school and district performance and assess whether schools and districts make adequate yearly progress (AYP) toward a goal of proficiency for all students. Schools and districts that do not make adequate progress are subject to interventions.

The ideas behind NCLB are simple ones. The intent is to promote improved student achievement and to reduce achievement gaps among student groups—especially gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged students—through the establishment of standards and performance-based accountability mechanisms. Standards define important areas of student learning by subject and grade level; performance-based accountability mechanisms establish incentives for teachers and schools to promote learning in those areas. Many accountability systems also include provisions for assistance that is provided to schools or districts that do not meet their accountability targets. The alignment of curriculum and instructional practices with the standards is a critical implied part of the reform and the focus of this paper. Educators are expected to respond to the incentives and the assistance in ways that lead to increased alignment between the curriculum and instruction offered to students and the standards and assessments that reflect the system?s learning goals.

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Topics/Tags: | Education

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