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Reforms leave parents guessing;Briefing

USA

Campaigners claim changes have failed to make schools publicly accountable for results. Jon Marcus reports

Despite the billions of dollars spent on educational reform, assessing the performance of US schools remains largely a matter of faith, according to a new study.

The study - Quality Counts - says America's massive effort to set new education standards is failing in one of its most important elements: accountability.

"There is a demand right now for results. It's coming from the public, but it's also coming from governors, lawmakers and administrators," said Virginia Edwards, who directed the survey. "What I don't think is happening is the next step: to hold people responsible."

The lack of an objective overview also alarms campaigners in the light of related findings by the research organisation Public Agenda, released in tandem with Quality Counts. It found that the vast majority of employers and college professors hold public state schools in low regard because of the quality of high school graduates, but 92 per cent of teachers think they're doing a fine job.

Educators need "a reality check", said Deborah Wadsworth, executive director of Public Agenda. "Based on these findings leaders state-by-state have a lot of work to do."

The Quality Counts study, underwritten by a charitable trust and conducted by the non-partisan, non-profit publication Education Week, said most schools "are skirting the edges of a serious accountability system". It found that fewer than half the 50 states plan to release public ratings of all their schools or identify low-performing ones.

Fewer still have provisions to close, take over or overhaul chronically failing schools. And only two states have attempted to hold individual teachers accountable for pupil performance.

All but two states now use tests to measure children's progress and 36 plan to issue "report cards" ranking schools. But only 19 plan to release such information publicly, and only 13 require these report cards to be sent home. Of those, under half include information parents say they want most: statistics on school safety and teacher qualifications.

Sixty per cent of teachers and 70 per cent of all taxpayers said they had never seen a report card on their local schools. Public Agenda found that 60 per cent of employers and 53 per cent of parents favour tying financial incentives for teachers and principals to student improvement. But only 22 per cent of teachers agreed.

"We have a long way to go on this matter of reform to make things really happen," Ms Wadsworth said.

The study also reported that most teachers admit to automatically promoting students to the next year class, whether or not they have mastered the material. Pupils said they would try harder if they thought their future employers would review their grades, but most employers don't ask for grades, reportedly because they don't trust teachers.

ACCOUNTABILITY. HOW THE 50 STATES DIFFER

Number of states requiring: Statewide tests to measure pupils' progress: 48 School report cards: 6 School rankings: 19 Financial assistance for low performing schools: 19 Sanctions for chronically-failing schools: 16 Monetary rewards for well-performing schools: 14.

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