Accountability permeates education in the United States. It focuses on both the processes and products of education. Responsibility is assigned to individuals or groups, including educational leaders, administrators, teachers, other school staff, and students themselves. Measures are used to determine whether the process or products meet the desired goals, and criteria are set for whether the targets are met. The consequences attached to the accountability systems may be simply labels assigned to the individual or group to which responsibility has been assigned, or they can involve withdrawal of funding or removal of the individual or group from continuing in the same role.


Accountability is the assignment of responsibility for conducting activities in a certain way or producing specific results. A primary motivation for increased accountability is to improve the system or aspects of it. To have a workable accountability system, there must be a desired goal (e.g., compliance with legal requirements, improved performance), ways to measure progress toward the goal (e.g., indicators of meeting legal requirements; indicators of performance), criteria for determining when the measures show that the goal has or has not been met, and consequences for meeting or not meeting the goal. Each of these aspects of an accountability system can vary in a number of ways.

Educational Accountability

Educational accountability targets either the processes or results of education. A desired goal is identified (e.g., compliance with the legal mandates of providing special education, highly qualified teachers, improved student performance), and measures are identified for determining whether the goal is met (e.g., a checklist of indicators that the legal mandates have been met, a target of 90% correct for teachers taking a test of current knowledge and skills, a target of 60% of students performing at grade level by the end of each school year). Criteria for determining whether the goal has been met can involve specific determinations of ways that the goal may and may not be met (e.g., deciding how many indicators in the checklist must be marked to be considered meeting the legal mandates, determining the specific content that does or does not count for specific types of teachers, determining how to calculate the percentage of students performing at a proficient level, and how to define gradelevel performance).

Accountability occurs in many ways in educational systems. One type of educational accountability system is that in which the school is held responsible for the performance of its students. Another type of educational accountability is a system in which teachers or administrators are individually held responsible for the performance of their students. Accountability systems in which schools or individual school personnel are held responsible for aspects of the educational process are most often used as ways to adjust the processes of education. Whether the school or individual teachers or administrators are held responsible, the educational accountability approach is termed system accountability.

Educational accountability may also hold individuals responsible for their own performance. For example, students may be held responsible for their performance in school (such as through promotion tests or graduation exams). Teachers may be held responsible for their performance on content and pedagogy through entry examinations or periodic tests of knowledge and skills.

System Accountability. Educational accountability in which the system is held responsible for the results of its students gained popularity in the early 1990s. Although some school districts and some states had their own accountability systems, the first use of this type of accountability across the United States was the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) known as Improving America's Schools. Accountability consequences were increased significantly in the 2001 reauthorization of Elementary and Secondary Education Act known as the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). NCLB required that schools, local education agencies, and states be held accountable for the performance of all students in the public education system.

The accountability system focused on school responsibility for student achievement, as in No Child Left Behind, demonstrates the components of educational accountability systems. The desired goal is improved student achievement. It is measured in terms of increases in the reading and math performance of groups of students. Measurement occurs through the administration of state assessments of reading and mathematics (such as compliance with legal requirements, improved performance), and ways to measure progress toward the goal (such as indicators of meeting legal requirements; indicators of performance). The criteria for determining when the measures show that the goal has or has not been met are defined in terms of benchmarks toward an ultimate target for performance, with specific rules for how the performance is aggregated and counted. The consequences for not meeting the goal include requiring schools that do not meet benchmarks to offer students the opportunity to attend a school that did meet benchmarks, requiring schools that did not meet benchmarks to provide additional educational services to students, and eventually closing schools that do not meet benchmarks for a certain number of years in a row.

Accountability for the process of education is a common form of educational accountability. Schools are required to meet accreditation criteria. Special education programs must demonstrate that they have provided services and maintained Individualized Education Programs (IEPs) in a manner consistent with the law. The desired goal of educational accountability focused on process is to improve the process that is targeted. Special education IEPs are an example of a process targeted for accountability. Meeting the process requirements means demonstrating compliance with a number of requirements in the law and in regulations for IEPs. Measurement occurs through the completion of a checklist, for example, that identifies the requirements (such as providing notice within a certain period of time, having specific signatures on the IEP document, and so on). The criteria for determining when the measures show that the goal has or has not been met are defined in terms of numbers of elements that must be checked. The consequences for not meeting the goal generally include a letter identifying the problems in the process. In some cases, repeated failure to meet the criteria results in penalties, such as reduction of funding, to the educational system.

Individual Accountability. Student accountability implemented via promotion or exit exams is a common type of individual accountability in schools. Students are required to pass a test to demonstrate that they are ready to move either from one grade to the next (promotion) or leave the educational system with a credential certifying successful completion (exit). The tests that are administered to students generally cover those topics that the school system or its public have deemed important for individual students to demonstrate at a certain point in time. The criteria for determining when the measures show that the goal has been met (for instance, that the student is ready to move from one grade to the next) are defined in terms of passing scores on the test. In some cases alternative criteria are available to certain students who either are not able to pass the tests or who need to demonstrate that they have met criteria through other means.

Individual accountability for the adults in the education system include such variations as teachers being held responsible for passing tests to obtain or keep jobs, or principals and educators receiving salary bonuses on the basis of student achievement. This type of accountability includes the same components as other educational accountability systems, with goals, measures, and other criteria for determining when the goal has been met, and rewards and sanctions for meeting or not meeting the criteria.


The most common forms of educational accountability use measures such as checklists of the process or assessments of student performance. The content of measures of educational accountability for process typically focus on resources (such as number of teachers or teacher-student ratio) or elements of a process (such as the elements of an Individualized Education Program). The content of measures of student performance focus on various student outcomes (such as what students should know and do at various grade levels, or percentage of students graduating with a standard diploma). States have defined content standards that identify what students at various grade levels should know and be able to do. Reading/English language arts and mathematics are common content areas in which standards have been set and assessments developed to measure student performance.

The measures of student achievement are nearly always large-scale assessments. These assessments are data collection instruments that usually have multiple-choice items in which students select from a list of answer choices, and also may have extended response items in which students write a response to a question. To lessen the unintended exclusion of some students from the accountability system because of their inability to be assessed on typical large-scale assessments, the assessments are designed to be widely inclusive of students of all characteristics. When the regular large-scale assessment cannot include all students, even with accommodations provided for students with disabilities and English language learners, alternative forms of measurement usually are provided (such as requiring students to demonstrate that they have the required knowledge and skills). Results of the large-scale assessments and alternatives, if available, are aggregated (added together) to produce a school score.


Erpenbach, W. J., & Forte, E. (2007). Statewide educational accountability systems under the NCLB Act: A report on 2007 amendments to state plans. Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Goldschmidt, P., Roschewski, P., Choi, K., Auty, W., Hebbler, S., Blank, R., and Williams, A. (2005). Policymakers' guide to growth models for school accountability: How do accountability models differ? Washington, DC: Council of Chief State School Officers.

Hanushek, E. A., Kain, J. F., & Rivkin, S. G. (2004). Disruption versus tiebout improvement: The costs and benefits of switching schools. Journal of Public Economics, 88(9), 1721–1746.

Heubert, J., & Hauser, R. (1999). High stakes: Testing for tracking, promotion, and graduation. Washington, DC: National Academy Press.

Linn, R. L. (2004). Accountability models. In S. H. Fuhrman & R. F. Elmore (Eds.), Redesigning accountability systems for education (pp. 73–95). New York: Teachers College Press.

Linn, R. L., Baker, E. L., & Betebenner, D. W. (2002). Accountability systems: Implications of requirements of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001. Educational Researcher, 31(6), 3–16.

Linn, R. L., & Haug, C. (2002). The stability of school building scores and gains. Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, 24(1), 27–36.

McCaffrey, D. F., Lockwood, J. R., Koretz, D. M., & Hamilton, L.S. (2003). Evaluating value-added models for teacher accountability. Santa Monica, CA: RAND.

Raudenbush, S.W. (2004). Schooling, statistics, and poverty: Can we measure school improvement? The ninth annual William H. Angoff Memorial Lecture. Princeton, NJ: Educational Testing Service.

Singer, J., & Willet, J. (2003). Applied longitudinal data analysis: Modeling change and event occurrence. New York: Oxford University Press.