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Perspective | An assessment and accountability system that reliably assesses multiple measures of student performance

The following is Mary Ann Wolf’s “Final Word” from the April 11, 2021 broadcast of Education Matters: “A look at state accountability and assessments for students and schools.” 


North Carolina’s assessment and accountability systems play a critical role in what happens in our schools during the entire school year. What we, as a state, measure, how we measure it, and even when we measure indicates what we see as academically important and affects how we use our time and resources in our schools.

Strong assessment and accountability systems are important so that we can understand where our students are and ensure that all students have access to a sound, basic education. However, our current systems may not lead to the learning opportunities and instructional experiences research demonstrates to be most effective; and North Carolina’s accountability measures may tell us more about the socio-economic status of our students’ families or zip codes than about the progress our students are making.

We have many scenarios where the rigidity of our assessment system and accountability system drive what opportunities are available for our students. For example, the fact that end-of-grade and end-of-course assessments are only available at very limited times of the year implies and often drives the concept that all students should be progressing at the same pace to take the one-time measure on a given day. This affects how schools view the viability of competency-based approaches; meeting individual needs, interests, and strengths; and shifting schedules and other structures within a school. 

North Carolina is at an interesting juncture in how we approach assessment and accountability for our students. Research shows us that the most effective assessment and accountability systems for our students reliably assess multiple measures of student performance and provide accountability for those measures. To move toward this goal, North Carolina has a solid blueprint to follow in the Leandro eight-year comprehensive remedial plan recently submitted to the court. 

To start, we should consider moving toward a statewide assessment model that leans more heavily on formative and interim assessments throughout the entire learning process, rather than relying on single summative assessments that take place at the conclusion of a semester or year. 

Next, we should work to ensure our assessment system best reflects student learning and supports personalized approaches for all students. Right now, our summative assessments rely heavily on multiple-choice questions versus opportunities for students to demonstrate their abilities to reason, solve complex problems, and communicate effectively. 

North Carolina’s A-F school grades currently serve more as an indicator of the socioeconomic status of a school’s student population rather than a reflection of a school’s ability to improve students’ academic progress. The state has the opportunity to look at multiple measures for accountability, including adjusting the formula for calculating school grades to place greater emphasis on student growth. 

Finally, let’s be sure we put accountability data to good use by using it to identify appropriate, evidence-based interventions and supports for schools and districts. These data points should be used to guide planning, budget, and instructional decisions and to assess school progress and improvement efforts at reducing the opportunity gap. 

Assessment should inform instruction and provide data and information that helps our education systems, schools, teachers, family, and students more effectively meet the needs of individual students. This is assessment for learning, rather than simply assessment of learning. If a teacher or a student is not able to learn from the assessment, and if the assessment does not inform the learning experience of the student, it is not for learning. 

Accountability is important to ensure that every student in our state has access to a sound, basic education and that factors including zip code, race, ethnicity, socioeconomic status, or existence of a disability do not determine the educational outcomes of our students. Our accountability system should provide us with the data and information that we need to ensure that our schools meet the needs of every student and that our students have access to equitable education and learning opportunities.

Thank you for taking time with us to learn and think about education. That’s all for today, and we’ll see you next week.

Mary Ann Wolf

Mary Ann Wolf, Ph.D. has served as President and Executive Director of the Public School Forum of North Carolina since June 2020, bringing with her more than 20 years of educational policy and leadership working directly with schools and districts across North Carolina to improve equity and build capacity for innovation.