Another Unintended Consequence of School Accountability

The negative effects of standardized-exam-based school accountability, what might be gently termed unintended consequences if they weren't both so nefarious and so plainly evident as to think they might indeed not be unintended, are almost too numerous to count:

-- Narrowing of the classroom curriculum to the accountable (i.e., tested) subject areas;
-- Reduction in time spent on art, music, gym, and even the sciences;
-- Teaching to the test;
-- Reduced time spent on teaching approaches that foster depth of exploration, creativity, passion, inquisitiveness, etc., and that deaden education or the notion of knowledge for knowledge's sake;
-- Repetitive practice testing that further reduce children's interest in school and education;
-- Increased test pressure and anxiety among young children;
-- Focus on "bubble children" with attendant loss of attention to high-end and low-end performers;
-- Improper coaching and outright cheating by teachers and/or school administrators;
-- Reclassifying low achievers as learning disabled so their scores will not count against the school;
-- Altering school nutrition programs on testing days (evidence for this was found in Virginia) to increase the likelihood students would do well on the exams;
-- Suspension of low achievers during the test cycle to alter favorably the school's testing pool.

As if all of those were not reason enough to question whether the negative effects of school accountability outweigh the positive ones (if any such exist), a June 2010 study (viewable as HTML here and downloadable as a .pdf by searching on "Figlio accountability teacher mobility") from the Urban Institute and the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research (CALDER) has shed light on yet another negative impact of accountability: teachers fleeing schools with failing letter grades.

Based on data at the student and teacher level from Florida since 2002, where accountability systems include letter grades for schools ranging from "A" to "F," researchers Li Feng, David Figlio, and Tim Sass analyzed the impact of a sudden change (in 2002) in Florida's criteria for school assessment that resulted in roughly half of the state's schools receiving what they term an "accountability shock," a grade either higher or lower than they would have received under the pre-2000 school assessment criteria. What they found speaks volumes regarding what state school administrations might term self-fulfilling prophecies:

"Teachers in schools who unexpectedly receive a grade of "F" are over 40 percent more likely to leave their school and are nearly 70 percent more likely to move to another school in the same district than are teachers in schools that did not receive an accountability shock." They also found that "...downward accountability shocks lead to an increase in the quality of teachers who leave."

In other words, teachers whose schools received an "F" saw the handwriting on the wall and began bailing out at a statistically significantly (at the 99.99% level) higher rate of turnover than at other schools, even those unexpectedly downgraded to a "D." Furthermore, the quality of the teachers who moved was higher than the general level of teachers who moved from/to other parts of the system. An "F' grade triggered teacher departure, more likely by the better teachers in those schools as measured, regrettably, by the results of those same standardized exams. Thus, a self-fulfilling prophecy: bad school, high teacher turnover, good teachers leaving = worse school, and the cycle is primed to spiral toward closure short of a major intervention.

Li, Figlio, and Sass do not address whether the impact of school accountability on curriculum -- the restrictions on their classroom creativity and teaching styles and the deadening and demeaning focus on drill and test prep -- add further to teacher mobility or departure from the profession altogether. However, their conclusions certainly confirm what intuition would suggest. That's one reason why major corporations facing bankruptcy or even merger will often pay bonuses or premiums to employees who are willing to stay thorough to the end of those processes.

Given the growing list of the negative effects of school accountability, both anecdotal and research-based, one might think that those responsible for these policies would take a step back, pause for a reassessment. But perhaps all of this is nothing more than a bit of acceptable collateral damage resulting from another agenda.
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