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Taking Stock

O nly a handful of states have adopted all the policies needed to hold schools accountable for results, a 50-state study by Education Week shows. The analysis, which combines an exhaustive document review with interviews of state officials, reveals that the rhetoric about accountability often exceeds the reality.

We measured what states are doing to hold schools accountable against six "essential steps" for building a comprehensive accountability system. Because many states pass accountability policies without ever acting on them, we counted only policies that have already taken effect or are slated to take effect in 1999. Here, and in the following tables, are the results:


  Assessment. At a minimum, measuring a school's performance requires testing its students. This first step is also the most popular among states. All but Iowa and Nebraska will have statewide tests to measure student achievement this year. However, some tests are better than others. Thirteen states use tests that include only multiple-choice questions, rather than asking students to construct their own answers.

Report Cards. Thirty-six states will have "report cards" on the performance of individual schools in 1999, making this the second most popular tool that states use to hold schools accountable. But states are not doing enough to make such reports accessible and useful. Only 13 states make sure the report cards get sent home to parents, and fewer than half include information that parents say they want most, such as statistics on school safety or teacher qualifications. ("Report Cards for Schools.")

Ratings. This is where most states fail to pass muster in holding schools accountable for results. Only 19 states now evaluate and issue public ratings of schools or are scheduled to begin doing so this year. While all 19 identify low performers, only six--Florida, Kentucky, Louisiana, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas--have additional categories to publicly identify their highest-performing schools.

Naming Names

Although the federal government requires all states to identify Title I schools that need improvement, only 19 will have comprehensive policies for identifying under-performing schools in 1999. Four of those won't start rating schools until later this year, and West Virginia currently has no schools on its list. We obtained the lists and took a closer look at the schools currently identified as low-performing in the remaining 14 states. Here's what we found:

  • The 14 states list a total of 1,024 under-performing schools, or 3 percent of the schools in those states and 1 percent of schools nationwide. In all, they educate about 602,000 students.
  • Four in 10 of those schools have minority enrollments that exceed 90 percent, compared with just 11 percent of schools across the14 states and in the nation as a whole.
  • 57 percent of the schools are in cities, compared with 31 percent of schools in the 14 states and about 27 percent of schools nationwide.
  • In about three quarters of the schools, more than half of the students are poor enough to qualify for federal free lunches.


Rewards. Nineteen states reward successful schools in some way, but only 14 reward them with money. And, too often, states use reward programs that are not connected to the rest of their accountability systems. Only Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas offer monetary rewards to schools based on ratings under the state accountability system.

Assistance. We asked the 19 states that identify low-performing schools how they help them improve. All require such schools to write or revise a school-improvement plan. And all offer assistance, usually in the form of expert advice, but only about half make the assistance mandatory. The rest provide it only if schools request help, fail to improve, or are especially low-performing.

Sanctions. Sixteen states have the legislative authority to close, take over, or "reconstitute" a failing school, which usually means that the school is closed and then reopened under new management and with a substantially different staff. But only three states--New York, Oklahoma, and Texas--have ever used such sanctions. Few states have time limits on how long a school can be identified as low-performing before the state must take action. Maryland's list of "reconstitution eligible" schools includes two Baltimore high schools that have been on the list since 1994.

--Craig D. Jerald & Ulrich Boser

Education Week
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(c) 1999 Editorial Projects in Education

Vol. 18, number 17, page 81