Evaluating State Accountability Systems Under ESEA: Module 1: Theory of Action

Module 1: Theory of Action

This webpage is part of the Evaluating State Accountability Systems Under ESEA tool, which is designed to help state educational agency (SEA) staff reflect on how the state’s accountability system achieves its intended purposes and build confidence in the state’s accountability system design decisions and implementation activities. Please visit the tool landing page to learn more about this tool and how to navigate these modules.

All states have developed or revised their state’s accountability systems in response to requirements in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESEA). A state’s accountability system includes multiple indicators, each of which illuminates a different facet of school performance or quality and might also communicate, for example, performance levels at the indicator level (e.g., percentage of students scoring proficient on state assessments is “below-average,” “meeting,” or “exceeding”) or annual ratings of overall performance (e.g., A–F grades, 1–5 stars). Results from a state’s accountability system are used to identify schools that require support or merit recognition; help direct resources to improve outcomes for all students; and communicate performance to parents, advocates, and the community about school performance. Ultimately, these actions are intended to improve student outcomes.1

Exactly how a policy is intended to change behavior and improve outcomes is described in a theory of action.2 A theory of action is a logical argument of how a policy is intended to work; specifically, it is the logical sequence of steps and policy mechanisms that collectively influence one another to result in the long-term objective of the policy in question. If the stated purpose of the policy is the why, the theory of action depicts the how. Many states have already developed a working theory of action as part of their consolidated state plans, which may be treated as a living document that guides communication with stakeholders over the course of implementation.

SEA staff can use a theory of action to do the following:

  • Communicate about the state’s strategy for improving school performance and student outcomes.
  • Communicate about how the state’s accountability system (and related state policies, programs, and initiatives) support improving school and student outcomes.
  • Consider how SEA staff time and expertise need be leveraged to fully implement the policy demands of the state’s accountability system.
  • Determine how to best allocate resources to implement the state’s accountability system and support school improvement.
  • Review the degree to which the state’s accountability system is working as intended.
  • Inform potential adjustments or mid-course corrections to the state’s accountability system (if the system is not functioning as intended).
  • Evaluate impact of the state’s accountability system on school improvement.

For states with an existing theory of action (e.g., one developed as part of the consolidated state plan), this module can help SEA staff ensure that the linkages within the theory of action are well-articulated and accurate, and where they are not, the module can help states revise their theory of action as appropriate. For states that do not have an existing theory of action, this module can help SEA staff reflect on the intents, actions, and intended outcomes that should be included in their theory of action.

This module includes two sets of self-reflection prompts that are intended to support SEA staff’s description and reflection on the theory of action guiding the state’s accountability system. These two sets of reflection prompts are not intended to be discrete; instead, they are intended to work together to help you answer questions in the next sections of this module.

Table 1. Overview of Module 1: Theory of Action

Section What is it? Why is it important? How should it be used?
Section 1. Articulate the Theory of Action of the State’s Accountability System A description of how the different components of the policy fit together in a logical way lays the foundation for accomplishing the policy objective. Articulating the theory of action behind the state’s accountability system can help develop a message that can be used for multiple audiences to describe the “how,” “what,” and “why” behind the state’s accountability system. The theory of action for the state’s accountability system asks you to describe the expected policy objective, behavioral intent, and intermediate outcomes, which will serve as a reference point for other modules of this tool. This will also help determine whether other components of the state’s accountability system align with and support the broader theory of action.
Section 2. Assess Confidence in the Accountability Theory of Action Based on your description of the theory of action, an examination of your level of confidence can determine whether theoretical linkages are sound and evidence supports your assumptions. Determining your overall confidence in the soundness of the theory of action can help you determine where to collect evidence, make system revisions, or develop outreach materials. The confidence claims will help you identify potential evidence that can help confirm soundness of the theory of action.

To get started, click on the link below:

[Begin Module 1: Theory of Action]

1 For more information on accountability system design and implementation, please see the resource An Introduction to Accountability Implementation: A Preface to the Operations, Performance Standards, and Evaluation Resources (link is external) from the Council of Chief State School Officers (CCSSO). Please note: The inclusion of links to resources and examples do not reflect their importance, nor is it intended to represent or be an endorsement by the Department of any views expressed or materials provided. The U.S. Department of Education does not control or guarantee the accuracy, relevance, timeliness, or completeness of any outside information included in this document. [Back]

2 A theory of action may also be referred to generally as a theory of change, logic model, or by other terms. Although there are some differences between these terms, they are often used interchangeably in practice.[Back]

Evaluating State Accountability Systems Under ESEA: Module 1: Theory of Action