American public education faces increasing pressure to carry out its mission of preparing youths with the skills to compete in today's global economy and to participate constructively in a democratic society. As part of this pressure, policymakers have developed increasingly sophisticated accountability and support systems to steer schools towards improved performance. These "new accountability" approaches emphasize student performance over system inputs, focus on schools rather than school districts as units of improvement, and use public reporting of student outcomes and rewards and sanctions as ways to motivate schools to alter their curriculum and instructional practices (Fuhrman, 1999). These strategies embody two key assumptions: (a) that accountability systems can be made powerful enough to influence the behavior of schools; and (b) that schools have or will develop the capacity to identify, select, and implement policies and practices that will improve their performance. Working under these assumptions, state and national policymakers have set academic goals, defined incentives, and provided supports, expecting that these actions would motivate schools to expend resources on improving organization, curriculum, and practice, and that schools' responses would improve educational programs and instruction and, in turn, improve student outcomes.
State and national assessment results show that student performance in many elementary schools has improved over the last decade. Some researchers have argued that a portion of these gains can be attributed to the pressures generated by state accountability systems that have set standards, focused attention, and created stronger incentives for improved performance (Carnoy & Loeb, 2004; Grissmer & Flanagan, 1998; Grissmer, Flanagan, Kawata, & Williamson, 2000; Hanushek & Raymond, 2002). High schools, however, have not experienced the same positive effects, and we know little about how high school staff respond to new external accountability pressures. The study (Gross & Goertz, 2005) reviewed in this issue of CPRE Policy Briefs provides insight into how teachers and administrators in American public high schools are influenced by and attempt to address the problems posed by standards based state accountability systems. Our analysis builds upon earlier studies that used smaller and less representative samples of secondary schools (e.g., Carnoy, Elmore, & Siskin, 2003), sometimes agreeing with and sometimes challenging their conclusions about the effects of increased accountability and high schools.