End-of-level standardized testing is wrapping up around the state. The tests are supposed to provide accountability and incentive for schools to improve. But do they?

During my career in public schools, I watched my students experience the stress caused by testing season. End-of-level testing dominates a full quarter of the school year with many teachers beginning test preparations as early as March 1, and tests still being administered as late as mid-May. The students feel the changes and stress level of the teachers during testing.

But do these standardized tests that take up so much time and energy in schools actually promote innovations and positive changes in our schools?

Consider this.

Testing ends in May with most schools going on summer break a few weeks after that. However, the tests take months to grade and score. Test results aren’t finalized until October of the following school year. That is five months later and six weeks into the next school year. 

The timing does not provide teachers or schools with enough time to evaluate and analyze the scores and trends to make meaningful changes. At best, schools use the results to make changes for the next school year. 

Many school districts downplay the end-of-level results. While I worked in Weber School District, the superintendent emphasized this point. He discussed his desire for teachers to teach the “whole child.” That means providing a well-rounded education outside of the tested subjects. He called it the “Weber Way.”

The lack of emphasis on testing shows in the results. It isn’t a new concern.

There have been news articles for many years bemoaning test results. In 2002, the Deseret News reported that there were 22 public schools that failed the tests. In 2014, the Standard-Examiner did a report on Ogden’s schools and their test results. The 1990 book “Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools” laid out academic performance concerns going back to the 1950s.

Teachers and principals aren’t to blame though. A majority of them care deeply for the outcomes of their students. But they work in a rigid system with poor and late information. Districts are slow to change and do not allow the school or teacher to innovate or create on their own.

Many lawmakers from both parties have tried to reform the system. No Child Left Behind is now 20 years old. It was passed with the intent to have every child proficient by 2014. It didn’t work. Race to the Top was passed in 2009 as part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. We are still waiting for the schools to improve. These programs were intended to create incentives for change.

None of this “accountability” has made a significant impact on student achievement. 

However, there is one type of accountability that has been shown to improve education: empowering parents to individualize their child’s education.

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When parents are given options, many positive things can and do happen. Parent satisfaction increases (we all know we could use that right now.) Academic achievement improves. Traditional schools innovate and improve. And this accountability increases outcomes of every student across the state.

Parents have more options today than were available before the COVID-19 closures in 2020. Children can continue to attend public schools, charter schools, and private schools. However, parents now have online options, online hybrids, microschools, homeschool pods, or the ability to mix and match these to whatever is best for their children. Funding these options through an education spending account has led to some new, exciting, and innovative approaches in education.

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This is the accountability we need. It is the only accountability that works.

Jon England is a former teacher and principal and the education policy analyst at the Libertas Institute.