on individual students, its requirements for identifying schools and districts that have students exceeding (or failing to reach) standards place the locus of accountability on institutions, not individual students or teachers.
In doing so, the law follows the lead of early reforming states, such as Kentucky and Mississippi, that designed mechanisms explicitly for school and district accountability. The argument in those states was that school faculty and staffs, collectively, are responsible for student performance. Although a 4th grade teacher may determine to a large extent what a 4th grade student learns, and how that student performs on a 4th grade test, the student's performance in fact reflects the cumulative knowledge and skills she has learned to that point. Thus all teachers contribute to the students' achievement.
Moreover, school-level accountability was designed to encourage teachers to work together to improve instruction, in contrast to programs such as merit pay, which were seen as fostering competition among school staffs (Clotfelter and Ladd, 1996).
However, placing accountability at the school level may mask some important information. As Willms (1998) found, the variation in student performance within schools was greater than the variations among schools; therefore, reports that made judgments about school performance based only on overall results, without taking into account the variations within schools, could be misleading, since some teachers perform well and some perform poorly.
In addition, placing accountability at the school and district levels leaves out a key piece of the student performance puzzle—the students themselves. Some critics argue that such schemes set up a conflict of interest between students and teachers; teachers have a strong incentive to raise performance, but students, with nothing riding on the results, have little incentive to do their best on the tests, particularly at the high school level. This situation, moreover, reinforces the low levels of motivation high school students have to work hard in school, and masks the consequences for inadequate performance students will face when they get out of school and find themselves unable to find a high-paying job (Bishop, 1994).
In an effort to increase student motivation for schoolwork and hold students accountable for their own learning, a number of policy makers, including President Clinton, have proposed some form of student accountability, such as making promotion from grade to grade or graduation from high school contingent on demonstrating a certain level of performance, usually by passing a test. President Clinton and others have posed the issue as one of ending “social promotion,” or the practice of moving students up the grades to remain with their peers, regardless of their academic performance. As the president stated in his 1998 State of the Union Address: “when we promote a child from grade to grade who hasn't mastered the work, we don't do the child any favors.”
But as a number of studies have shown, schools do children no favors when they retain them in grade and continue to provide them with inadequate