Student Outputs Key in School Accountability Plan

September 13, 2013

by Christian D’Andrea
MacIver Institute Education Policy Analyst

On Thursday, dozens of invested Wisconsinites came to testify regarding how failing schools – in every public sector – should be dealt with in the future. If current plans hold, these schools will be held accountable according to how their students grow – and chronically bad schools will face a greater threat of being shut down than ever before

Senate Bill 286 deals with the creation of an accountability program that instills real consequences for failing schools in Wisconsin. It will gather its data from the recently installed School Report Cards, which grade how a school is performing based on several inputs, including items like student growth, achievement gaps between groups of students, and how likely pupils are to advance to the next grade or graduate. Under SB 286, schools that are designated as chronically underperforming would face being shutdown, losing their charters, or being dropped from the state’s voucher program if they fail to show improvement over a three-year span.

In short, schools will have to prove that their students are learning and growing from year to year. If they continually grade out in the “Fails to Meet Expectations” category of the state’s report cards, they’ll be slated for intervention. If they fail to improve then, they’ll be rebuilt or dropped from the state’s funding program altogether.

The hearing led to a significant question over what measures of accountability were more important. Senator John Lehman (D-Racine) took several opportunities to push for expanded standards that would affect the inputs of schools, including items like allowing students in voucher schools due process for expelled pupils and ensuring background checks and licensure for all teachers. These policies aren’t currently enforced by the state, but instead tracked and handled by the organizations that accredit these private schools. Currently, no private school can participate in any of the state’s school choice programs without accreditation.

Bill authors Senator Luther Olsen (R-Ripon) and Representative Steve Kestell (R-Elkhart Lake), along with a design team that featured educational stakeholders from across the spectrum of public and private schools across the state, have instead shifted the focus to student outputs with their proposed legislation. Under their policies, schools would be judged by how their students grow and learn during the school year. Rather than relying on variables that may not have an effect on how children learn, Olsen and Kestell plan to use student data to drive the decision behind which schools are ineffective.

An output-based, value-added growth driven accountability program would allow the state to gauge which practices are working best in Wisconsin, and allow for the replication of methods that prove to be successful regardless of whether they come from traditional public, charter, or voucher schools. It also allows to better understand how effective innovative schools that have fostered curricula, techniques and educational reform are in terms of helping students learn.

Regulating school inputs across all sectors of publicly funded schooling has its benefits, but many of the regulations are already handled by accrediting agencies. Duplicating that process would lead to more bureaucratic hurdles for voucher and charter schools and promote more uniformity amongst a group of classrooms that serve students on the basis of providing a unique education for a dynamic group of students. Adding more layers of protection would help filter effective and innovation reform out of schools without any significant evidence that these changes would promote the growth of Wisconsin’s students.

Creating an accountability reform program that uses grades based on student growth is a solid step towards a world where schools across Wisconsin can be compared on an apples-to-apples metric based on how much pupils are learning. It could go beyond just shutting down bad schools and help to provide the best practices when it comes to educating children in the Badger State. However, it can’t be used as an excuse to rip out the freedoms that many schools use to provide a viable and effective alternative for students that struggle in traditional public schools.

As is, an output-based school accountability program would put the state on the right track. Schools should be judged by their product, and better understanding student growth will help officials, residents, and parents identify which schools are getting the most from their students. That’s the information that Wisconsin needs to decide which schools should be shut down, and what kinds of schools should take their place. Once that data is in place, it will usher in a new era of accountability for every school that receives public funding in the state.