by Quintin Shepherd and Roland Toscano

This article originally appeared in the fall 2022 issue of TASA INSIGHT. Dr. Quintin Shepherd is superintendent of Victoria ISD and works as adjunct professor at University of Houston-Victoria. He has served as a superintendent for the past 18 years in three states. Roland Toscano, East Central ISD superintendent of schools since 2014, is an East Central graduate who has served all 26 years of his career in public education at East Central ISD. 

We have long believed that every single day schools and school districts across the country get the very best report card they could ever hope to get from every single student in their district. It happens when students get home and are asked, “How was school today?”

This one simple question completely flips the paradigm on what most people think about when they hear “accountability.” This simple question flips the paradigm on finding genius. This question flips the paradigm from teaching to learning. It’s strange to think that the answers have been mostly unavailable to the public for many decades, until now.

Just how did judgment become the only accountability paradigm in education? Accountability in other fields and professions includes the capacity of an organization to shape itself for the future and emanates from within the organization. But for some reason, education is different. External judgments via test-based accountability are considered more than adequate when that cannot be the case. Test-based accountability is built on compliance frameworks.

Graduation rates are an example. Communities whose residents have a high net worth do not have to even think about graduating 100% of students. Other communities struggle to get to 70%. The graduation rate does not tell us the truth about either schools or communities. The truth is that the first school is not the model for how to best graduate kids. Further, why would we tell this school they do not have any work to do?

This is compliance thinking. It is not suited to effectiveness or improvement. Worse, compliance systems and thinking forestalls all districts from becoming transformational. Most state accountability ratings systems are not much more than compliance frameworks and do not answer the simple question of “how was school today,” let alone what benefit they provide for the local community.

From the Texas School Alliance media release dated August 17, 2022, “… because it relies heavily on the STAAR test, school accountability ratings continue to tell us more about family income than the full range of things that make for a good school.” Just as it is untrue that schools in wealthier neighborhoods are mostly good and those in poorer neighborhoods are mostly bad, it is misguided to believe standardized test scores can indicate the quality or effectiveness of schools and the educators in them. Most test-based accountability systems are built upon the disrespectful assumptions that teachers’ and educators’ feet must be held to fire because they cannot be trusted and must be controlled.

The punishment and public shaming (judgment) that accompanies these types of systems place educators, especially those serving poorer communities, in a difficult position: Focus on test scores, or do what is right for kids? The dilemma is that the more a school system focuses on test scores, the worse the results. The solution to this problem is to adopt a bifurcated approach, one that does less damage and induces real change from the inside out.

The reason for this is that the over-reliance on standardized test scores validates the erroneous judgments that accompany them and perpetuates an undesirable cycle of compliance and mediocrity.

While we may not be able within the current policy environment to undo test-based accountability or the negative judgments and consequences that come with it, we can introduce a better and more useful system that will shift focus from being rear facing to forward facing, from a partial account to a complete account, and from being technically overcomplicated to offering clarity around the benefits a school/school system provides for stakeholders.

Our transactional language of judging schools based on their compliance with a sense of what test scores should be has created paradigms, hierarchies, and power structures that have found their way into our policies and our laws. One of the worst examples of this is that far too many people think comparability is accountability.

While comparisons can be useful to researchers capable of pointing out the limitations in their research, using them as the source of judgments is lunacy. If I were to compare your height (or weight, or intelligence, or test score) with others and hold you accountable for having something more like someone else, I am by default pretending you are enough alike that you should produce a similar result. If you aren’t like them, I’m essentially asking you to change and be like them, even though that would be impossible.

However, we also attempt to use accountability mechanisms to rank ourselves compared to others, and that message is to be better than others. Our comparison sends an ambiguous message: “Be like others, but better.” That is lunacy. We have much work in front of us if we are going to transform and tell the truth about the effectiveness of our schools, our communities, and our governments.

We say that our kids are more than a test score, but are they? The message they receive from our current accountability system is that they exist to earn high test scores, not learn or grow or get ready for their futures.

And because accountability always carries real weight, the current system creates serious conflicts with the messages educators send every day that students are so much more.

The problem is we tend to think of accountability as a program or initiative done to schools by a larger authority, when we should think of accountability as a part of the DNA of our organizations. Our kids deserve better from all of us because they are more than a test score. When a student declares themselves as more than a test score, they are conveying that they are in school to accomplish something.

That student has a relationship with a school and rightly expects to benefit as a result in a way test scores miss. That student’s parents expect certain benefits as a result of entrusting their child’s education to us, and our community expects certain benefits as a result of their investment in and support of our schools.

This idea of “stakeholder benefit” (a phrase introduced into the educational lexicon by John Tanner) is not new. Every organization exists to provide some number of benefits to its stakeholders and schools are no different.

But, for a host of reasons, we have not been very good at identifying what those benefits are or our effectiveness at delivering them. That creates a distance between a school and its community and that, we believe, is a mistake. Closing this gap requires complete honesty as to where we are being effective and benefiting our children and where we are not yet as effective as we must be.

To be clear, everyone working in a school system expects to be held to account and is enriched by an accountability process that is transparent, understandable, and builds trust. This can only be accomplished with an accountability system that promotes meaningful change, is future-focused, elicits innovation, and acts as a tool to help schools be great instead of one that tries to keep schools from “failing.”

In his book, “The Accountability Mindset,” John Tanner suggests that creating an Organizational Accountability System that is benefits-driven is an effective way to provide clarity and build trust between a highly technical organization and its nontechnical stakeholders. He argues that the way to do this is through what he calls a benefits-based approach to accountability.

One of the key differences between benefits-based accountability and the more familiar test-based accountability is that a benefits-based accountability system uses simple language, formats, and designs to create a partnership between the ISD and the community.

The resulting system will be one that embraces radical, easy- to-understand transparency as we share where we are effective and where we are not yet effective. When done well, a benefit-based accountability system utilizes the hopes, dreams, and expectations of stakeholders to design every aspect of the organization and deliver desired outcomes and experiences. The benefits are communicated in a manner that allows for those with technical knowledge as well as those without strong technical knowledge to understand the benefits from their different perspectives.

This is the kind of accountability system that can be the genesis of transformational change. Traditional test-based accountability does not seek this authentic partnership with a community because it does not care to ask what the community desires. Being accountable to the state of Texas for high and rising test scores is a far cry from being accountable for benefiting students. The lion’s share of accountability belongs to local taxpayers for meeting their expectations.

Pillars such as student learning and progress, quality, and commitment of staff, student safety and well-being, post-secondary readiness, community engagement and partnerships, and fiscal and operational systems make up a more complete representation of what an accountability system should monitor and report.

There is no such thing as a standard community, so there is no benefit to a standardized school system and even less to a standardized accountability system. Each system should be uniquely designed and tightly coupled to the expectations and needs of the community it serves.

Standardized and test-driven state accountability is incapable of determining the effectiveness of a school, a teacher, and certainly the potential of a student. It lacks the capacity to inform teaching and learning in any sort of detailed way, and it lacks any ability to forecast human potential.

A benefits-based accountability system starts by answering the question: “To whom are we accountable and for what?” From this, a community can help a school system categorize every aspect of the organization into pillars.

Within each pillar, benefits and key questions are identified and utilized to initiate a continual change engine. As a school system answers key questions using any and every relevant data source available, progress is affirmed and opportunities for improvement are identified.

Armed with this type of intelligence, meaningful change happens in an ongoing rhythm, prompting continuous improvement that can be reported publicly using signaling in a cadence that enables clarity, simplicity, and real-time transparency. Each year culminates with the publication of a comprehensive community report.

As benefits become clearer to stakeholders, trust, confidence, and student outcomes improve. High quality performance is not a destination but a perpetual journey of relentless forward progress in pursuit of realizing the hopes, dreams, and expectations of all stakeholders.

To be sure, several of our brothers and sisters around the State of Texas have been hard at this work for the last six years, and we have made good progress in our communities. Of course, some are further along than others.

Building upon the strong theoretical foundations laid forth by John Tanner, TASA has convened 60-plus public school districts that are each focused on turning theory into practice.

The Texas Public Accountability Consortium stands ready to support school districts that are interested in creating a more useful accountability system that reliably drives improvement and strengthens the relationship between a community and its schools. Decades of test-based accountability have not produced the outcomes we want for children in Texas, now is the time to lead the change our state deserves.

This process of being accountable for student benefit never ends. Our community will change, as will the needs of our students. Schools are dynamic institutions and will need to constantly stay on top of where they are and are not yet effective, as that too will change and shift over time.

The best way for us to become irrelevant or obsolete is to stand still, which we do not intend to do. While we will likely have to live with test-based accountability for the foreseeable future, that in no way prevents us from building locally developed accountability systems that inform meaningful change.

These systems can be communicated in real-time, are aligned with the hopes, dreams, and expectations of the unique community each serves, and, done well, will build trust between the schools and their communities we all so desperately need.