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October 1, 2005
Vol. 63
No. 2

All About Accountability / The Age of Compliance

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Thirty-five years ago, the first Annual National Conference on Large-Scale Assessment took place in Boulder, Colorado. Only 40 people showed up. Last summer, the 35th rendition of that conference took place in San Antonio, Texas. About 1,400 people showed up.
Although I didn't attend the initial Boulder conference, I've gone to most of the subsequent ones, which, incidentally, are now sponsored by the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Through the years, these large-scale assessment conferences have varied in quality. Most were winners. There were also some downright duds. Many of the early conferences focused on the sorts of technical issues that seem to induce euphoria among psychometricians. The topics were so abstruse that earphones and simultaneous translations should have been provided so non-psychometricians could understand what the presenters were talking about.
In recent years, however, these large-scale assessment conferences have dealt less with statistical exotica and more with the ways in which large-scale assessments can have a positive impact on schools. For example, presentations have often focused on developing classroom tests that help teachers make better classroom decisions while simultaneously measuring students' attainment of state-assessed curricular aims. I've been delighted with that change. But during last summer's sessions in San Antonio, I sensed something new and troubling.
Attention predictably focused on the long assessment shadow cast by No Child Left Behind (NCLB). That's been going on ever since President George W. Bush signed the legislation into law. This year, however, I heard presenter after presenter describe how we could best comply with NCLB—not only with the statute itself, but also with the spate of regulations and guidance documents associated with the law. Time and again, I would hear a speaker say, "That procedure is clearly allowed according to the regulations," or "The guidance document on NCLB assessments surely prohibits what you're proposing." An almost palpable atmosphere of NCLB compliance had enveloped the conference.
My uneasiness crystallized on the next-to-last day of the conference when Ken Kay, president of the Partnership for 21st Century Skills, made a general session presentation about the curricular aspirations his organization thinks U.S. public schools should pursue. The Partnership for 21st Century Skills, founded in 2002, is an interesting blend of partners from the business community (including Cisco Systems, Microsoft Corporation, and Time Warner, Inc.) and the education field (including the American Federation of Teachers, the National Education Association, and the Educational Testing Service). The Partnership ( is supported by the U.S. Department of Education.
Kay laid out a compelling argument: Given the impending emergence of millions of skilled workers in China and India, U.S. schools desperately need to provide their students with intellectual skills more appropriate for this century than for the last. He pointed out that tomorrow's U.S. workers cannot limit themselves to mastery of a single field but instead must be flexible and adaptable. The Partnership wants U.S. students to be better problem solvers and decision makers, yet also be fluent in emerging information and communications technologies. At the end of the presentation, I heard many conference attendees indicate that, given the seriousness of the upcoming challenge from Asia, Kay's ideas made lots of sense.
But in the series of small-group sessions that followed, I heard objections to what Kay had just proposed. By law, a state's NCLB accountability program must be rooted in the content standards that were in place in that state when NCLB was born. Any effort to alter those content standards currently requires a Herculean effort to convince federal officials that a state's officials aren't just softening their expectations for their students. Sadly, every state representative I spoke with about the 21st century skills said, in essence, "Nice idea, but we'd be way out of compliance with NCLB!"
To illustrate, one of the Partnership's key curricular aims calls for students to acquire literacy in information and communications technologies. Students attain this level of literacy when they become adept at analyzing, accessing, managing, integrating, evaluating, and creating information in a variety of formats and media. As matters currently stand, few states' content standards include this group of skills. Incorporating such skills into a state's existing content standards would be a daunting task.
The authors of NCLB clearly wanted to improve student learning in the United States. Unfortunately, rather than spurring instructional improvements, NCLB currently seems to be constricting the curricular thinking of education leaders. Judging from the opinions at this most recent conference on large-scale assessment and elsewhere, people seem less concerned about what's good for kids and more concerned about compliance with NCLB.
I can vividly recall that '60s song informing us that "This is the dawning of the Age of Aquarius." But it's 2005 now, and the lyrics have changed. Under NCLB, this could be the dawning of the Age of Compliance.

James Popham is Emeritus Professor in the UCLA Graduate School of Education and Information Studies. At UCLA he won several distinguished teaching awards, and in January 2000, he was recognized by UCLA Today as one of UCLA's top 20 professors of the 20th century.

Popham is a former president of the American Educational Research Association (AERA) and the founding editor of Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, an AERA quarterly journal.

He has spent most of his career as a teacher and is the author of more than 30 books, 200 journal articles, 50 research reports, and nearly 200 papers presented before research societies. His areas of focus include student assessment and educational evaluation. One of his recent books is Assessment Literacy for Educators in a Hurry.

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