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Assault On Accountability

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Whether one questions college and high school national rankings or not, everyone grabs for U.S. News & World Report’s issues that rate schools nationwide.  We may quibble with which one is assigned top dog and which comes in third, but overall there is a sense that somehow the rating does justice to the service provided.

Not any more.  Nevada’s Green Valley High School came in a respectful 13th place out of thousands.  But, that pretty top score made the school principal go slack jaw. How could that be?  The first major error is in the simple calculation of how many students are enrolled.  U.S. N&W noted 477.  Jeff Horn, the school’s principal, says think again.  It’s more like 2,788.  And the data went downhill from there.

So what happened?  A consultant programmer, paid by a federal grant to input data that eventually is sent to the U.S. Department of Education’s Common Core of Data, input the wrong numbers for Green Valley High.  The consultant’s contract ended and the individual moved on to Texas.  Human error, albeit costly, is not unexpected.  Safeguards to ensure accurate data fell apart at the federal level and never were in existence at the state level due to not having “a bunch of people sitting around a table, adding up the numbers, making sure things are right,” according to the state’s Education Department director of assessment.  “It’s an automated process.” Automated or not, it failed.

Clearly, this is not the only error in federal data.  Pacific Palisades High School, a very affluent and high-achieving California school, is considered to be a dropout factory thanks to NCES data errors.  These types of errors are unequivocally major obstacles to improve education in all schools for all kids.  The reform movement rests on the base of accountability, assuming the data involved is accurate.  Once the base crumbles at the hand of factual errors, so do key bricks of reform – status of schools, achievement levels of students, teacher evaluations.

This is not a problem that plagues one level of government.  All indicators suggest that fault can be found at all levels.  Government leaders must make the provision of accurate data in a timely fashion a top priority.  If we can’t get the data collection right, the chances of achieving real accountability are about as likely as finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

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