Designing a New Accountability Ecosystem
Katie Martin
If we truly want to develop knowledge in learners, we have to know them, love them and help them see the full beauty of who they are and what they can become. With this awareness, we must set our expectations high and align the accountability systems that hold us all accountable for developing the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that matter most in each and every one of our students.
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Designing a New Accountability Ecosystem
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Keynote panelists Kaleb Rashad, Dr. Lynn Moody, and Tony Wagner in discussion with moderator Dr. Katie Martin at A New Way Forward Summit 2.

During the keynote panel for A New Way Forward Summit, Kaleb Rashad, director of creative leadership at High Tech High, argued that it was time to pick a fight with standardized tests. I couldn’t agree more. Given that we don’t have standardized tests this year (and most likely won’t next year), colleges are beginning to drop SAT scores as an admission metric. This creates an opportunity to not just push back on standardized testing, but to come together and design a new and better accountability system—Accountability Systems 2.0 as Tony Wagner, research fellow at the Learning Policy Institute, called it. Dr. Lynn Moody, superintendent of Rowan Salisbury School District agreed saying, “Students are not test scores.” Yet too often when we are unclear about (or forget) why we do what we do, the systems of efficiency and standardization take over. 

Recently, we have been confronted head-on with the systemic inequities in education, healthcare, and the justice department. We have lost lives disproportionately among Black and poor communities and COVID-19 shelter-in-place requirements have exacerbated educational access disparities. Although we don’t yet know what school will look like in the fall, we know that our students will return with trauma, knowledge gaps, and a new world view. Educators and administrators will have their share of new learnings, trauma, and needs too.

Pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next.

- Arundhati Roy, Author

It is a time of reckoning for our world, communities, and educational system and it’s an opportunity to imagine the world anew. Many educators have been working toward more equitable, authentic, and just learning experiences and assessment practices that honor and celebrate how people are smart, not just ranking and sorting them based on outdated measures. As Kaleb Rashad put it—it’s not just about getting a job, it’s about who you are, who you are becoming, and how we can collectively care for mother earth. 

This begins with an awareness that if we truly want to develop knowledge in learners, we have to know them, love them and help them see the full beauty of who they are and what they can become. With this awareness, we must set our expectations high and align the accountability systems that hold us all accountable for developing the knowledge, skills, and mindsets that matter most in each and every one of our students. 

In the last two months as our schools were shuttered, I have seen educators working harder than ever to meet students where they are, build relationships, and connect on a personal level. We’ve come to a deeper realization of the importance of social-emotional health and the contexts in which our students live. There has been more empathy, more innovation, and education has shifted more in the last two months than in the last hundred years. In the midst of this chaos, we have the opportunity to evolve. There are many unknowns but it’s not time to despair. It is time to organize, prioritize, and come together in solidarity to pave a new way forward.

3 Steps to Designing a New Accountability System

Step 1: Co-create your North Star

There is often alignment in the vision of what we as educators, parents, and a society want for learners. Many people share with me that they want children to be happy, successful, caring humans who can contribute to society. The challenge is in how we narrowly define and measure what constitutes success. A hyper-focus on improving standardized test scores can prevent us from the larger goals of developing learners to think, communicate, and be contributing members of society. Educators are not afraid of accountability. We just want to be held accountable to our community for what matters most.

Determine your hopes, dreams, and priorities and get crystal clear on your directional system as Lynn Moody did in Rowan Salisbury School District. The first step is to engage in more conversations in our communities and seek to better understand answers to the following questions:

  1. What type of learners do we want to develop?
  2. How might we develop the desired knowledge, skills, and mindsets?
  3. How might we assess the desired outcomes?
  4. How can we create more equitable, inclusive, and just learning environments?
  5. How can we ensure all humans see their value and feel valued for who they are?
  6. How can we all work together to achieve our desired outcome? 

I don’t believe that there are any right answers to these questions, but we can’t assume the answers are the same as they have been in the past. To ensure schools evolve to meet the needs of learners today, it is incumbent on leaders to convene the greater community to examine beliefs about learning and teaching and consider how schools can best serve learners.

Step 2: Prioritize accountability for what matters most

Too often we focus on test scores, curriculum implementation, program fidelity, or even technology use, but when we stay focused on learners, all these tools and measurements become secondary—part of what we do but not why we do it. We can have the latest technology or the best curriculum, but if we aren’t focused on who learners are, how to best serve them, and how to partner with them to move forward, we can fail to have the desired impact. 

Accountability is beneficial unless we are focused on the wrong measures, which is why Tony Wagner urges communities to come together to hold us, as educators, accountable for what matters most. 

I have worked with multiple districts this year to define the skills that we want students to learn at grade level bands and identify what that looks like. It is an important and powerful conversation when we can discuss what we actually value, what effective collaboration looks like, why it matters, and how to teach it. 

Learn more about how your school or district can work with Katie Martin and team to advance assessment and accountability practices.

Step 3: Design a system that measures desired progress.

Once you have community support, a clear North Star in the form of a graduate or learner profile, and you have clearly defined the skills you need to develop, it is time to ask, How do you assess progress? One thing I have learned is that it is in our DNA as educators to make rubrics and checklists, but this approach rarely helps learners grow. I have had much more success defining the desired skills with a community and identifying the path to get there. This shifts the narrative from labeling and categorizing to discussing how we can improve outcomes for learners. 

Looking Ahead

When you have a clear vision, aligned competencies, and a mastery-based approach to learning, you have success indicators you can track with goal-setting, personal learning plans, portfolio systems, student-led conferences, and defenses of learning. These measures allow students to be at the center of the accountability system and involved in the learning, curating, and sharing mastery of desired knowledge and skills, with the support and guidance of thoughtful educators.

Everybody says that it is impossible until it is done. 

- Nelson Mandela

The time is now! We have an opportunity to align accountability systems with what we value rather than wait for others with different priorities to do it. For more, check out my conversation on A New Way Forward with Tony Wagner, Kaleb Rashad and Lynn Moody.

Have questions about your school or district’s specific needs? Get in touch with our team!