Over the past 60 years, we as a nation have sought to improve our education system and focus on equity, excellence, school choice, and standards and accountability. Each wave of reform has been led by different combinations of leaders and stakeholders: government officials, educators, parents, and activists (focused on equity); business leaders and policymakers (focused on excellence/accountability); and parents (focused on choice and pushing back against assessment). Each has had its own bogeymen—from “inadequate funding” to “unfunded mandates,” from “anything-goes” curricula to “lack of choice” in schools, from “bad teachers” to over-testing.
Through the years, federal law and state accountability systems—and occasionally the courts—have served as a potent force for change. From the desegregation of schools as a civil rights issue in the 1950s to the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which provided new resources and programs to better educate low-income children in the 1960s, we have struggled to right history’s wrongs. In the 1980s, the report from the National Commission on Excellence in Education, A Nation at Risk, put the onus on state leaders to bolster regulations about the course of study required to graduate. More recently, the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act sought to hold students and schools accountable to achieve high academic standards measured by high-stakes testing. The Obama Administration, using its leverage from the Race to the Top Fund, sought to encourage states to adopt new standards and hold teachers accountable for student performance on tests.
"Dr. Elgart is clear in his call to action. If we want to improve educational outcomes we must work to improve the entire system—not just test scores!!! A focus on a systematic process for continuous improvement from low performing to high performing schools is the only proven method."
Terry Holliday, Ph.D., Retired Commissioner of Education, Kentucky
Yet, since the 1980s, our nation has failed to find the right alchemy to convert chosen accountability measures into desired outcomes. Mechanisms to drive improvement through our system of schooling have been at times too weak, too centralized, or have foisted one-size-fits-all solutions on schools, or sparked unintended and oftentimes negative consequences. With the best of intentions, we have committed to the highest of aspirations but failed to establish systems that support achieving them. In order to achieve such high aspirations, we must abandon failures of the past and address the difficult, persistent questions confounding our education system: Why do children of poverty continue to struggle and experience limited success in school? Why do communities with a high concentration of families living in poverty feel alienated from and abandoned by the educational system?
Under NCLB-era accountability, too much focus was placed on a single measure (student assessment), casting a spotlight on too narrow a band of students (low-performing students near proficiency) rather than sparking higher performance by all students. Federally mandated sanctions were overly prescriptive, and the use of high-stakes test scores for students and schools as a proxy for measuring teacher quality had a disastrous effect on teacher morale. And all the tough tactics did little to halt the widening of the performance gap between institutions serving low-income communities and their higher-income neighbors. In fact, across every demographic, students from higher-income families experienced larger improvement rates than those from low-income families.
In the words of Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy:
The test-based accountability system now universally mandated in the United States…has had 10 years to prove itself. The result is very low teacher morale, plummeting applications to schools of education, the need to recruit too many of our teachers from the lowest levels of high school graduates, a testing regime that has narrowed the curriculum for millions of students to a handful of subjects and a very low level of aspiration. There is no evidence that it is contributing anything to improved student performance, much less the improved performance of the very low-income and minority students for which it was in the first instance created.
One of the worst parts of the law was the fact that its accountability system was completely divorced from local culture and context, so it did not recognize the many factors that influence performance or diversity in performance. NCLB did not account for rapid progress in low-performing schools, lack of progress in high-performing schools or the effects of school closings on local communities. Nor did it provide any insight into or credit for the kinds of things that happen every day in individual school buildings that can be tinkered with to maximize performance. Many sanctions foisted on schools and communities—such as school takeovers—also had no basis in research.
Meanwhile, some argue that the hyperfocus on standards and testing has undermined the development of talent and creativity, entrepreneurship, and the ability to prepare all students for global citizenship. Ironically, many of the countries that are achieving better results than the United States on international tests, such as the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), are trying to find ways to recreate the intangibles found in American schools prior to our adoption of such a test-centric system. In the words of Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon:
If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the misguided policies that threaten democracy, turn American children into robotic test takers, narrow and homogenize our children’s education, encourage standardization instead of helping the needy children and stimulating innovation, value testing over teaching, and scapegoat teachers, we might well have viewed it as an act of war. As it stands, we have allowed this to happen to ourselves. We have squandered the opportunities brought about by technology, ignored research evidence, and paid no attention to what the future needs… 
Schools, like students, must be given room to make their own journey to mastery and success. Doing so requires them to develop their talent, culture, execution skills, and use of knowledge to make decisions that will improve the performance of students and the school as a whole. Standards and assessments have their place in identifying what students know, but they should serve as tools for improvement, not as the overarching indicators of success for students or schools. Without changing the extensive focus on testing found in today’s accountability systems, we will be unable to preserve the intangible benefits of our system that critics like Zhao argue we are in danger of squandering.
 Jennings, J. (2012). Reflections on a half-century of school reform: Why have we fallen short and where do we go from here?, Washington, DC: Center on Education Policy, p.2. See http://www.cep-dc.org/displayDocument.cfm?DocumentID=392
 Tucker, M. S. (2014). Fixing our national accountability system. Washington, DC: The National Center on Education and the Economy, p. 2. http://www.ncee.org/wp-content/uploads/2014/08/FixingOurNationalAccountabilitySystemWebV4.pdf
 Zhao, Y. (2015). A world at risk: An imperative for a paradigm shift to cultivate 21st century learners. http://zhaolearning.com/2011/03/10/a-nation-at-risk-edited-by-yong-zhao/. Published in Society 52(2), pp. 129-135, April 2015, a special issue of the journal commemorating the 30th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. http://zhaolearning.com/2015/04/06/a-world-at-risk-an-imperative-for-a-paradigm-shift-to-cultivate-21st-century-learners1/