A new study by two Boston College researchers, along with a model law drafted by a well-known Colorado education activist, lays out an alternative vision for how students should be tested and for how schools should be held accountable for student performance.

The study, “Data-Driven Improvement and Accountability,” finds “that the use of data in the U.S. is too often limited to simply measuring short-term gains or placing blame, rather than focusing on achieving the primary goals of education,” according to a news release.

The paper was released Tuesday by the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder. It was written by Andy Hargreaves and Henry Braun.

The authors argue that current accountability systems impede improvement because they create incentives for teachers to focus too much on test preparation and coaching and even to game the system.

They propose a system under which school improvements would be based on a wider range of data “that properly reflect what students should be learning” and which would rely on “collective responsibility” for school improvement rather than top-down accountability requirements.

Kathleen Gebhardt
Kathleen Gebhardt / File photo

For a better idea how that would work in practice, or at least look on the pages of the law books, the model legislation that accompanies the report offers some interesting details. It was written by Kathleen Gebhardt of the non-profit Boulder law firm Children’s Voices. Gebhardt was a primary organizer of and the lead lawyer for the plaintiffs in the Lobato v. State school funding lawsuit, which ultimately was rejected by the Colorado Supreme Court last May.

Among other provisions, the model legislation would reduce standardized testing to language arts and math, administer those tests to only three grades a year and give them to a random sample of students in each school.

Gebhardt compared the testing model to what’s used for the National Assessment of Educational Progress and said that under the model bill standardized testing “becomes a criterion, not the criterion” for school accountability.

Another feature of the bill would create a system of expert school inspectors who would conduct in-depth reviews of schools, generally every four years, and develop improvement plans in cooperation with school staff.

Gebhardt said the inspection model is similar to what’s used in Canada and the United Kingdom. She said the school inspections, plus annual reports by districts, would include and consider a wide range of data ranging from test scores to school conditions and funding in “trying to give a more holistic point of view that’s not measured by tests.”

She acknowledged that there’s a lot of momentum behind the implementation of current Colorado education changes, but “we have enough data to say it hasn’t played out well and we’re starting to move in the wrong direction.”

Gebhardt said the report and the model bill are “just trying to start a dialog about how we talk about schools. … I’m hoping that it drives us away from the grading system [for schools and districts] … and starts a more holistic discussion.”

The project was funded by the Ford Foundation and by the Great Lakes Center for Education Research and Practice, a Wisconsin-based research organization supported by the National Education Association and affiliates in seven Midwestern and eastern states.