Policy brief

Assessing California’s Accountability System

Successes, Challenges, and Opportunities for Improvement
Jennifer O'Day
American Institutes for Research
Catherine Bitter
American Institutes for Research
Michael W. Kirst
Stanford University
Martin Carnoy
Stanford University
Elisabeth L. Woody
Policy Analysis for California Education
Bruce Fuller
University of California, Berkeley
David Ruenzel
Education Week and Teacher Magazine


Accountability for student performance is on the minds of everyone in U.S. education—from policymakers to district administrators to principals. While the federal No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB) has claimed center stage in the national accountability debate, California’s own results-based accountability system was set in place several years prior to NCLB. In 1999, California legislators passed the Public Schools Accountability Act (PSAA), establishing specific performance targets for schools, a system of rewards and sanctions for meeting those targets, and assistance for low-performing schools. During the past two years, three independent studies—conducted PACE, American Institutes for Research (AIR), and the Consortium for Policy Research in Education (CPRE)—have examined the accomplishments, shortcomings, and continuing challenges of PSAA. This brief outlines common findings and recommendations across these three independent studies.

Now is an opportune time to carefully assess the lessons of PSAA as California’s new administration sets a path for improving instruction and student learning in light of recent developments:

  • California’s budget crisis has constrained the ability of the state and districts to provide assistance and incentives to schools. This will encourage policymakers to identify and build on the most successful aspects of current policies when prioritizing spending.

  • Compliance with NCLB will require the state to resolve differences between its current processes for tracking school performance and aiding low-performing schools.

  • The state’s STAR testing and school assessment system must be reviewed and reauthorized this year, offering the legislature an opportunity to revisit the timing, components, and uses of the student testing system.

  • Governor Schwarzenegger has proposed ways to simplify the state’s school finance system, providing more flexibility to districts and school principals to allocate resources in ways that foster innovation and trust in local educators.

The purpose of this brief is to inform state and district-level policymakers by clarifying complex accountability issues and highlighting local educators’ views that point to specific ways of improving California’s accountability system.

Five key issues emerged during our three independent research studies in schools across California. This brief examines each issue, beginning with the relevant assumption underlying the accountability policy in that area—that is, how the policy was intended to work—and then discussing our common findings—that is, how the policy actually played out in practice. In this discussion, we consider both the successes and the continuing challenges of the system. We conclude by outlining four major implications for policymakers that result from these findings.

Suggested citationO'Day, J., Bitter, C., Kirst, M. W., Carnoy, M., Woody, E. L., Buttles, M., Fuller, B., & Ruenzel, D. (2004, February). Assessing California’s accountability system: Successes, challenges, and opportunities for improvement [Policy brief]. Policy Analysis for California Education. https://edpolicyinca.org/publications/assessing-californias-accountability-system