What Accountability Measures Don’t Account For

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The windows to the soul are not eyes, but words. Writer, reader, thinker, believer, but most importantly, storyteller.

You’re sitting in a classroom, pencil slippery in your sweating palm. You’ve been preparing for this test for months, and the big event is finally here: K-PREP, Day One. Somehow, you still don’t quite feel prepared. Will you measure up?

Senate Bill 1, enacted in 2017, called for the Kentucky Department of Education to implement a standardized testing and accountability system. The culmination of this mandate is the state-required assessment called the Kentucky Performance Rating for Educational Progress (K-PREP) test.

Standardized testing has been present in American life since researcher Edward Thorndike and his students at Columbia University first introduced the practice in the early twentieth century. In recent years, the standardized testing has become far more prevalent, with accountability testing and benchmark testing practices at a peak. This is especially true in Kentucky, my home state. Since elementary school, I have been forced to take standardized test after standardized test, and my content in school has often reflected the content found in those tests, despite their relative irrelevance to my actual classes. The same is true for most students throughout the country.

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The first time I can remember taking a standardized test, I was in third grade. At my school, the Commonwealth Accountability Testing System (CATS) was one of the few lingering reminders of the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind policy, resulting in many weeks of preparation, stress, and anxiety for both teachers and students. Although CATS testing was eventually phased out, K-PREP testing immediately rose to replace it. Pep rallies, donut breakfasts, and yoga classes were held throughout the week of testing by my elementary school to help students feel more comfortable. Schools try to act as though it’s no big deal, but they can’t help but make testing week feel like the most important week of all. How are students expected to succeed in such a high-stress, anxiety-inducing environment?

Looking back, I sincerely question the practice of mandated state testing. Out of only 188 days in the school year, five of those precious opportunities for learning are stolen by the Kentucky Department of Education and the standardized testing requirements of elementary schools and middle schools. However, students themselves are not benefitting from these assessments.

What is the true meaning of an accountability test? Accountability for whom? And what are the consequences of measuring accountability by standards that do not necessarily measure the needs of all students?

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These standards are potentially most harmful to Kentucky educators. Teachers stress about results potentially costing them their jobs; when students fail, teachers are blamed. However, failure to hit benchmarks can more heavily be attributed to environmental factors, such as socio-economic status, learning disabilities, and other considerations, especially those pertaining to students of color. Accountability measures are often used as weapons against teachers who are unable to impact these students’ outcomes, for some reason or another. This can have an adverse effect on the classroom environment. According to a scholarly article created in collaboration between Temple University and the University of Virginia, educator stress has been linked to negative instructional practices and poor student outcomes.

Proponents of standardized testing practices argue that they are helpful in ranking school rigor and success rates, along with giving the Department of Education solid numbers to show which aspects of the Kentucky Common Core are not working. In addition, they assert that standardized practices allow for comparisons to be made across age groups, providing valuable information to help advance their learning. However, standardized tests are certainly not reflective of all types of intelligence indicators. Why are students assessed on the exact same level when their minds work very differently?

Although standardized testing is a valuable practice, in theory, it is not executed in a way that benefits students, teachers, or the educational environment. Instead, it serves to increase government control over what is taught in the classroom and disadvantages the very students it is meant to identify and support. As further research begins to surround this subject, Kentucky has started to flirt with opt-out programs, though they are flawed. Leaving the decision to opt out in the hands of parents instead of schools, these proposals don’t account for the systemic inequality exacerbated by accountability testing, and the negative consequences it brings to educators and administrators alike. Development of opt-out legislation and replacement accountability measures need to be in the forefront of public education policy, and these changes need to happen quickly in order to have the most long-lasting impact.