• by Albert Cortez, Ph.D. • IDRA Newsletter • November – December 2010 •

A word search in the Microsoft Word thesaurus on the term accountability yields three terms: answerability, responsibility, liability. And while school accountability is critical, the rush to judgment sometimes has led to policies that are not very useful and are harmful and dysfunctional for individuals and groups of students (Robledo Montecel, 2010; Montes, 1993).

Texas was one of the states that led the movement toward increasing accountability for schools and students. It started with standardizing the curriculum that all students were expected to master in core content areas. Those policies were incorporated into House Bill 72 in 1984. Also included were the beginnings of the state’s mandated assessment system, then known as the Texas Assessment of Basic Skills (TABS). It was originally designed to provide diagnostic information to help school leaders and their staffs assess areas of instruction where students were doing well and identify others where additional efforts or changes in instructional strategies were needed.

In a similar vein, policies were instituted requiring schools to measure how many students were dropping out of high school. IDRA had discovered that this information was not collected by schools until they were required to do so in 1986 when such accounting was adopted into House Bill 1010 after IDRA’s 1986 Texas Dropout Survey Project report recommended that such data be compiled (Cárdenas, et al., 1986).

In addition, more punitive accountability policies were ushered in. Students who did not perform at specified levels on state-mandated assessments were required to be retained in grade. At the high school level, students were denied a high school diploma, even in those cases where the students had gotten passing grades in those courses and had all the credits needed to graduate.

In 1993, new legislation adopted what would become the forerunner of today’s school accountability system. It incorporated punitive consequences for schools and school districts that failed to meet certain state standards related to the percentage of students meeting passing criteria on state tests, the number of students who were not promoted to subsequent grade levels, and the number and percentage of students who dropped out.

The school-related accountability provisions were considered by many, including IDRA, as a step in the right direction by establishing criteria by which schools might be held “answerable, responsible and liable” for the outcomes of students for whom schools were responsible for serving. At the same time, IDRA was among many who noted that such accountabilities – if they were to be fair – also had to recognize disparities in funding, staffing and related support services that were created and sustained by the state’s school funding system (Cárdenas, 1997). This would need to be addressed in order to level the playing field for all schools.

These concepts were eventually expanded and labeled “opportunity to learn” standards that urged policymakers to consider not only student outputs but also inputs that had a critical effect on how schools were able to serve their students.

In 1995, IDRA president, Dr. María “Cuca” Robledo Montecel, and IDRA founder and director emeritus, Dr. José A. Cárdenas, outlined the implications of upholding a school funding plan that fell short of fully equalizing funding in Texas, noting: “The hollow victories of the Texas Education Agency in [defending the new funding plan] create a paradoxical situation with the agency’s recent launching of a massive effort for school accountability, while defending the inadequacies and inequities in the finance system which contribute to inadequate outcomes” (1995).

IDRA concerns regarding the prospective negative consequences of standards and accountability systems were echoed by this author in a 1998 article on these issues (Cortez, 1998). Other critics of the states’ high-stakes-based accountability system concurred with IDRA’s concerns on the misuse and unintended consequences of state accountability policies (McNeil & Valenzuela, 2001; Valencia & Villarreal, 2005).

Yet, Texas’ accountability system became embodied in the federal No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) adopted in 2001. An underlying, but often unstated, premise of these accountability provisions has been the assumption that schools are providing all students equitable educational opportunities. These provisions would include equitable funding, comparably competent teachers, and similar levels of supplemental support services. But research has documented that these are quite inaccurate assumptions.

IDRA does not believe the shortcomings in state and national mechanisms that support delivery of education, however, mean that we cannot or should not hold schools accountable for improving and sustaining student achievement. Data on school performance are critical to ensuring that schools work to serve all students effectively. It also is important to help guide efforts that provide information on how resources might be more effectively targeted to serve those students who require additional support. By the same token, we also contend that it is possible to construct accountability systems that can hold schools accountable to the local communities that they serve without resulting in punitive and dysfunctional consequences for individual students.

Some examples of accountability policies that do not harm individual students include the use of sampling procedures to gather data on student performance at the school or school district level, rather than testing every student, a policy change recommended by Dr. Robledo Montecel. Such sampling could ensure that individual students are not subjected to high-stakes consequences, such as in-grade retention or denial of diplomas based on a single test.

Sample testing is already used at the federal level for the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to provide a national profile of educational performance. It also can save states millions of dollars in testing costs – an imperative in today’s climate of huge state funding shortages.

Other changes to existing accountability policies could require that any high-stakes decision involving students consider numerous criteria, such as student grades, student progress toward meeting performance objectives, teacher and parent input, and other mitigating factors (Jones, 2004; Hamilton & Valenzuela, 2007) – all factors that are currently trumped by a single test score in many accountability systems.

An important consideration when re-assessing accountability policies impacting individual students is that, in the power pyramid, students occupy the bottom rung of authority. While students should be accountable for attending classes and exerting maximum effort in the classroom (factors that impact existing grading policies), they do not control how much funding is provided to their school; which teacher is assigned to their class; or whether that teacher is fully credentialed, is experienced or is a recent entry into the profession. Students also do not control the instructional materials that are provided or the extent to which supplemental support systems, including targeted instructional support or the newest in educational technology, is provided.

Until we begin to acknowledge these factors, students will remain the scapegoats for schools’ systemic issues as outlined in IDRA’s new Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework book (Robledo Montecel & Goodman, 2010).

Changes in existing accountability policies require that we revisit some old assumptions that served as the foundations for much of today’s accountability policies. And we must recognize that better options are available if the promises inherent in a fair accountability system for schools and students are to be realized.


Cárdenas, J.A. Texas School Finance Reform: An IDRA Perspective (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1997).

Cárdenas, J.A., & M. Robledo Montecel, J. Supik. Texas Dropout Survey Project (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 1986).

Cortez, A. “Standards, Assessments and Accountability,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, September 1998).
Jones, K. “A Balanced School Accountability Model: An Alternative to High-Stakes Testing,” Phi Delta Kappan (2004) Vol. 85.

McNeil, L., & A. Valenzuela. “The Harmful Impact of the TAAS System of Testing in Texas: Beneath the Accountability Rhetoric,” In M. Kornhaber and G. Orfield (Eds.) Raising Standards or Raising Barriers? Inequality and High Stakes Testing in Public Education (New York: Century Foundation, 2001) pp. 127-150.

Robledo Montecel, M. “At a Time When We Most Need Strength, Texas Education is At-Risk of Being Weakened,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, June-July 2010).

Montes, F. “For the Children’s Sake – Improving School Accountability,” IDRA Newsletter (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, November-December 1993).

Robledo Montecel, M., & J.A. Cárdenas. “Education in Texas: Unfunded and Unfairly Funded Mandates,” IDRA Special Bulletin (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, March 1995).

Robledo Montecel, M., & C.L. Goodman. (eds). Courage to Connect – A Quality Schools Action Framework (San Antonio, Texas: Intercultural Development Research Association, 2010).

Valencia, R., & Villarreal, B. “Texas’ Second Wave of High-Stakes Testing: Anti-Social Promotion Legislation, Grade Retention, and Adverse Impact on Minorities,” In A. Valenzuela (Ed.), Leaving Children Behind: How ‘Texas-Style’ Accountability Fails Latino Youth (New York: State University of New York Press, 2005).

Hamilton, M., & A. Valenzuela. “The Transition to End of Course High School Exit Exams in Texas,” Policy Memorandum (Austin, Texas: University of Texas At Austin, August 2007).

Albert Cortez, Ph.D., is director of policy at IDRA.

[©2010, IDRA. This article originally appeared in the November-December 2010 IDRA Newsletter by the Intercultural Development Research Association. Permission to reproduce this article is granted provided the article is reprinted in its entirety and proper credit is given to IDRA and the author.]