Schooling in America Series: The Public on K–12 Accountability

Late last year, we began taking a deep dive into the results from our 2018 Schooling in America Survey, our annual snapshot of the K–12 landscape in the United States.

With education committees in session and semesters in swing, we thought it would be a great time to pick things up where we left off providing context about what Americans, parents and teachers think of various education issues.

Modern day education accountability has been largely based on testing. The two weren’t always hand-in-hand, though. Before 2001, not all states had a program of testing that came with repercussions for schools that did not meet certain standards. Heck, not all states even had statewide standardized testing at all. The landmark No Child Left Behind (NCLB) law changed all of that, and education policymakers and reformers are still grappling with the repercussions of high-stakes and test-based accountability systems.

Mike McShane and Paul DiPerna, both of EdChoice, wrote a 2018 report that focused on the goals and implications of education accountability systems. It used responses from a focus group-style event to inform the past, present and future of accountability. They wrote:

Schools are complex organizations, and our school system is a complex network of governmental and nongovernmental actors. The tens of millions of people who either work for or send their children to school have myriad opinions about what they want from those schools, what schools should look like, and what values schools should promote. Trying to find one system, or even 50 systems, that can satisfy those diverse desires is a tall order. Trying to find the five, 10, or even 20 metrics that can capture what we want from schools is a tall order, as well. Removing human judgment and trying to rely on objective measures may very well be a fool’s errand, as the determination of which metrics to include or not include is a subjective process in itself.

Now, let’s turn to what larger groups of stakeholders think about accountability.


A–F School Grades and Accountability Standards

In the wake of federal provisions found in legislation like the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), many states have adopted A–F accountability systems as a way to assess schools in a standardized manner. Though such systems vary in states from state to state, it’s common to see a high emphasis on standardized test scores as a metric for quality.

Yet there is a noticeable swath (37 percent) of Americans who are unsure if their states assess schools with grade letters or other ratings via a statewide accountability system. About one in three current school parents (29 percent) were unsure, and nearly a fifth (17 percent) of public school teachers were unsure—which is fairly striking considering such systems can tie school grades to additional funding for things like teacher pay. Because these numbers were self-reported and not compared to whether respondents’ states actually have A–F accountability systems in place, they can be viewed as a cautious estimate of lack of knowledge about accountability systems.

These results indicate a potential lack of communication regarding accountability systems, and those in the position to communicate about these systems to teachers and parents have a complicated relationship with these systems. A 2018 Gallup survey found 32 percent of public school superintendents strongly agreed that rising demands for assessment from the state and federal levels are a challenge for their school districts.



Education accountability systems are largely based on standardized test scores. And more than a third of the general public (36 percent) believes too much time is spent in primary and secondary schools on standardized testing. An equal proportion (36 percent) believe schools conduct “about the right amount” of standardized testing, and more than a quarter (28 percent) believe the time spent on testing is “too low.”

Only three in 10 Americans (30 percent) estimate the average time students spend on standardized testing to be 16 days or more in a school year. That is a lower proportion than both public school teachers (39 percent) and school parents (34 percent) estimate for our highest level of “three or more weeks.” The public was about just as likely (29 percent) to estimate students spend five days or less on testing.

Education Next regularly asks questions about Common Core and accountability in its annual poll. This year’s poll found a majority (68 percent) of Americans supporting mandatory testing in math and reading, as stipulated by federal requirements. However, the survey authors note that the strong responses toward Common Core and testing may not translate to agreement on accountability itself:

While debate over Common Core has largely faded, the standards themselves have not. Most states have quietly raised their standards to levels roughly equivalent to those originally envisioned in the Common Core initiative, though in most cases the standards no longer wear the “Common Core” label.

The Purpose of Accountability

Indeed, there does not seem to be agreement on what the purpose of accountability systems—which rely heavily on standardized testing—should be.

While a majority of respondents (58 percent) felt ensuring minimum standards of reading and math learning—a rationale similar to the design of Common Core—was a “Top 2” purpose for an accountability system, they also answered other reasons that may or may not rely heavily on standardized test scores.


purpose of state accountability systems table


The lines are further blurred when asking who should be held the most accountable and have the most control in an accountability system.


control in implementing state accountability sys table


held accountable state accountability sys table


A majority of Millennials, measured in the 2018 GenForward survey on Millennials and Public Education in the United States, supported dropping standardized testing from the college admissions process. With college attainment seen as one of the primary goals of K–12 education, this dichotomy is striking from the generation that has recently completed college.

Tomorrow, we’ll dig into how teachers view accountability systems, as well as school choice programs.


Other Posts in the Schooling in America Series

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know Our Teachers

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know School Parents

Schooling in America Series: Getting to Know the Public on Public Education

Schooling in America Series: K-12 Education Funding

Schooling in America Series: The Public on School Choice