Are You My Accountability System?

The new commissioner glided confidently across the room and took her spot, perched at the head of the table.

human-chain-g221e39d50_1280Looking up at her were the young, eager faces of her newly assembled cabinet. All so very excited to be there. Each one ready to do their part to improve student learning – no, to improve the lives and futures of all of the children in the state.

One by one, the Commissioner went around the table assigning responsibilities. Finally, she reached the youngest, most eager, and most idealistic member of her team, Dr. Hatchling – a freshly minted EdD, plucked from an internship at a local NGO and dropped into her nest.

Hatchling jumped at the sound of her voice.

“And you Dr. Hatchling have the most important assignment of all. You are responsible for reimagining the state’s school accountability system. “

With that, she sent them on their way and flew off to her next meeting.

Now Hatchling couldn’t imagine what the state’s school accountability system was, let alone reimagine it.

Young Hatchling’s first stop was the internet to Google “school accountability system” (with quotation marks). Over 250 thousand results, not very helpful.

“School accountability systems can serve many purposes, including sharing information, measuring progress toward state and local goals, and supporting greater educational equity.”

Well, Hatchling thought, the Department’s not that big. Surely, I’ll be able to find the accountability system and learn what it does. I’ll start at the bottom and work my way back to the top.

So, away Hatchling went.


Down from the Commissioner’s office suite.  The elevator went down, down, down! It was a long way down. The elevator finally came to a bouncing stop in the basement – the bowels of the building.


“Now I will go find the state’s school accountability system,” Hatchling said to nobody in particular.

The first door Hatchling came upon had “STATE ASSESSMENT” printed on it. Remembering that accountability systems had something to do with “measuring progress,”  but still experiencing the effects of long haul text anxiety, Hatchling entered cautiously.

“Are you the state’s school accountability system?” the nervous Hatchling asked.

“No, we are the simply the State Assessment System, nothing more, nothing less.” came the humble reply.  “A state test cannot be an accountability system.”

Our job is to construct and administer tests each year that produce an overall score that is an indicator of student proficiency on the state’s academic content standards in English language arts, mathematics, and every now and then, science.

That’s only an annual test score and only in three content areas. How could we possibly be the school accountability system?

That made a lot of sense.  Hatchling moved on. The elevator stopped at the first floor.

exchange-of-ideas-g0c8113620_1920He saw the group of people waiting in the reception area to meet with the Commissioner. Hatchling recognized them from meetings at the NGO. They would come and talk and talk and talk and leave with money. They surely weren’t the state’s school accountability system. They were a big SNORT!

The elevator continued up, and Hatchling stepped out at the second floor.


There were bright, flashing lights, and a lot of animated voices coming from the room at the end of the hall. Hatchling moved toward the light.

The walls were covered with screens – huge screens – containing all sorts of graphs and dials and gauges and arrows, some pointing up, some pointing down, some just making a flat line across the screen, and some seeming to jump right out at you.

Above one set of screens was a sign reading “Growth”. Around the room there were other signs: “Achievement”, “Opportunity-to-Learn”, “Finances”, “SEL”, “Attendance”, “Teacher Quality”, “Safety and Discipline,” “Community Engagement”, “College Readiness”, “Performing Arts,” and “4-year Graduation Rate”.

“Strange,” Hatchling thought, “the pictures on these screens don’t look anything like the models on the computer printouts in the State Assessment office.”

Clearly a lot of information about schools was being compiled and shared by the people in this room.  This must be the right place!

Are you the state’s school accountability system?” Hatchling asked excitedly.

No, No, No, Oh No!” came a voice from the middle of the room. “We maintain all of the state’s indicators,” she explained.

All of the data that come into the state via the student information system, the school reporting system, the state assessment, teacher certification, school finance, and other sources end up here. We clean, process, and convert the data into dashboards for policymakers, school administrators, teachers, students, parents, well, just about anybody who wants or needs to monitor progress.

The state’s school accountability system is more than a set of indicators.

That made a lot of sense. Hatchling moved on.

On the third floor Hatchling passed the offices of curriculum, learning standards, special education, and English learners.  The next set of cubicles was labelled “SCHOOL SUPPORT SERVICES” and Hatchling recalled the final line of the definition, “supporting greater educational equity.

Support! It was worth a try.

group-gea27200a2_1920The people in School Support were very nice, the friendliest Hatchling had met so far. And they talked about different things than the other people in the Department. They did a lot of work directly with schools, including schools identified and targeted by the school accountability system. They even helped those schools develop goals and revise school improvement plans.  But no, School Support Services was not the state’s accountability system.

That made a lot of sense. Hatchling moved on.

The Legal, Finance, and Media offices were on the fourth floor. Hatchling watched as the elevator went by without stopping. Those were not the offices to visit if you were hoping to find accountability.

The elevator stopped on the fifth floor – the last chance. Surely, Hatchling would find the state’s school accountability system here.

SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITYThe elevator doors opened, and Hatchling gasped. In big, bold lettering above the indoor waterfall wall and stone garden were the words Hatchling longed to see, “SCHOOL ACCOUNTABILITY”. It was a very quiet floor; much quieter than any of the others Hatchling had visited today. And plush. Not “Commissioner’s Suite” plush, but a far cry from the windowless, bare concrete walls of the State Assessment office.

Hatchling confidently approached the person at the desk. “My name is Dr. Hatchling. I’m from the Commissioner’s Cabinet. Tell me about the School Accountability System, please.”

“Well…,” they began. Hatchling listened as they told him about how the School Accountability team on the fifith floor really was only involved in generating school scores. The team took information that the indicator people on the second floor provided, including state assessment scores, and combined it in various ways to create a composite school score, which they called an “annual determination”.

They couldn’t really explain what was being determined annually or how it related to progress toward state goals or greater educational equity, but they did say that it provided meaningful differentiation between schools.

“So, there is no accountability system, after all,” Hatchling sighed.

Oh, but there is,” they said, and then explained

We send our composite scores down to the fourth floor where the folks in Legal make sure that they meet Federal regulations. The Media team then convenes focus groups to test out user-friendly school rating systems based on our composite scores. People seem to like “star ratings” the best – much more than letter grades or labels.

Next the Media team reports results and puts together a social media campaign to promote the rating system, while the Finance team searches for federal and foundation grants available to the schools identified and targeted for support on the basis of their composite score – well, actually on the basis of their rating.

All of that information is then provided to the nice people down in School Support Services, who work with all of those former teachers in the other offices on the third floor.

It’s really quite a system.

It all made sense.

“Everything that goes on at the Department is part of the state’s School Accountability System!”  

Hatchling was impressed, happy, and a bit relieved.

But in the short ride between the fifth and sixth floors, a troubling thought emerged out of nowhere – the way that they sometimes do.

Something was missing. But what could it be?  Test results, indicators, composite scores, star ratings, former teachers, grants and supports – it was all there. What could be missing?

Then just as the elevator’s doors opened to the Commissioner’s Suite it all became crystal clear. The one thing missing from the state’s School Accountability System was…




The assessment system assessed. The support services system supported. The indicator systems indicated. Even the rating system rated.

But the accountability system didn’t hold anyone accountable for anything. Not anyone in the Commissioner’s Office. Not anyone anywhere in the Department. Not in the District Offices. Not in the Schools. Not in the Community. Certainly not in the Legislature.

Then Hatchling heard soft voices rising in song, children’s voices.


Accountability is such a lonely word
Everyone is so untrue
Accountability is hardly ever heard
And mostly what I need from you

Were the voices coming from the street below? Perhaps they were just in Hatchling’s head, or maybe it was background music – as Hatchling was still standing in the elevator.

And maybe the word in the song was Honesty and not Accountability. But did that really matter? Honesty and Accountability are two sides of the same coin. Secretary Arne taught us that.

At that moment, Hatchling knew –

Whatever test results, indicators, composite scores, or rating system it comprised, the state’s reimagined school accountability system was going to include accountability — and a solid theory of action.

It made a lot of sense.

Hatchling smiled. It was a good first day.

Header Image by Franz W. from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

%d bloggers like this: