Accountability is a good thing. It is just that testing is not a good thing. Testing measures knowledge about a rather limited amount of content at one moment in time. There is a huge number of variables that can and do confound this measurement. An individual's anxiety, the "I studied the wrong thing" syndrome, and any disconnect between content and measurement are just a very few of the variables. Additionally, while supposedly measuring learning, the tests are really set up as perform or consequences games. People who do poorly on tests get low grades, fail to get an award or some other punishment. With Race To the Top, teachers are now going to be punished for the behavior of their students on these tests. The notion is that the tests will measure how well a teacher has taught. There is just no way around the situation, regardless of intent, tests are punitive.
Well then if testing does not equal accountability, what does?
We must first begin with whom we want to hold accountable. Are we holding the student accountable for learning? In the end, the student will be accountable for learning with or without testing. As long as the content we are teaching is useful to the student long term, then the student's life will bear the consequences of not learning that content. If what we are teaching is not useful to the student then it really does not matter whether he or she has learned it or not. And we should be ashamed to waste that student's time on something that is not useful.
Are we trying to hold the teacher accountable? Testing students seems hardly the way to do that. Providing teachers with a rubric of the kinds of behaviors we expect to see in the classroom would be a good beginning. These rubrics should list only specific measurable observable behaviors. Then teachers should be observed multiple times during the school year. A remedial plan should be put into place for those teachers deficient in the expected behaviors. Frequent in-service opportunities should be provided to all teachers to increase their skills. Principals should return to their roles as instructional leaders.
Perhaps it is the school systems that should be held most accountable. In most local jurisdictions schools take up more than the Lion's share of the budget. The answer by the school systems to every problem is to ask for more money, yet there are no measures to see that this money is well used. There are two significant measures for school systems. The first would be the number of dropouts. We can reduce the number of dropouts by increasing the relevancy of the curriculum to ALL students, not just to those who are college bound. When we speak of career readiness we need to include those careers that require technical training but not a program of higher education. We need to follow up on our graduates. What do they think of their education? How has it worked for them? What could we be doing better? How are our birds flying? We are afraid to answer these real questions so we hide in the protective coloration of a standardized test.