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Test Scores v. Accountability…

July 9, 2011

A colleague at work (thanks Bonnie) sent me this excellent article from the Baltimore Sun.  The article goes over the recent cheating on tests that has apparently been discovered in Baltimore City Public Schools.  Testing scandals have also been found in other districts across the country, most notably in Michelle Rhee’s own Washington DC district during her tenure.

The article starts out by talking about something I had never heard of up until this point: Campbell’s Law.  It is named for its creator, Donald T. Campbell and it posits that: “the more a quantitative measure is used for social decision-making, the more it will be subject to corruption pressures that distort the social process it is intended to monitor.”

Wow!  How accurate is that statement?  I believe that there is a lot of validity to Campbell’s Law.  Using quantitative measures for social decision making (like decisions made about public schools) is a disastrous idea, the article goes on to explain why, so I will leave it to the article’s author Joseph Ganem to explain why this is so:

While I agree with that assessment, I would go further and argue that testing scandals are symptomatic of a more insidious societal problem: a refusal by its leaders to accept responsibility for the consequences of their decisions. Defining accountability in terms of a quantitative measure — a number — is actually an elaborate hoax perpetrated by the leadership to avoid being accountable.

This is an interesting theory that I believe does have merit.  You see, by having excessively quantitative data collection systems students, and the student IDs attached to them, become little more than numbers to the people crunching the data.  There is no personalization, there is no recognition of what may be happening in a student’s home life, in their relationships, their health, etc…

For example, basing education policy decisions on standardized test scores (numbers) means that the educators in charge are relieved from using professional judgment. Consider all the effort school leaders no longer need to exert and decisions they no longer have to defend.

If the students are judged based on test scores, there is no need to consider their natural abilities and inclinations. Whether B’s on a math test result from overachieving C students who become inspired by a great teacher, or underachieving A students who are bored with the class, becomes irrelevant.

If the teachers are judged based on their students’ test scores, there is no need to go into the classroom and observe their methods and interactions with students. Whether students are succeeding in spite of bad teaching or failing despite good teaching becomes irrelevant.

If the schools are judged based on test scores, there is no need to work at improving the schools. All that is necessary is to declare schools with low scores failures, fire the teachers and principals, and give the work of educating the students to others — even if there is no reason to believe that schools with different personnel would do any better.

Test scores are not the only numbers that school officials use in place of judgment. Consider the number zero, as in the “zero tolerance” policies in place for rule infractions. Carry a penknife or lighter to fix your lacrosse stick, as two Easton high school students did recently, and receive a punitive suspension that defies all common sense.

In all of the above examples, the reliance on numbers means that the decisions made are automatic and require no professional judgment. As a result, none of the leaders are accountable for the outcomes.

Not only does it take accountability out of the picture, it seems to me that quantitative measures take the very persona out of the human relationships that are so vital to really knowing and helping our students.  Our students are so much more than just a number with a label like “Below-Basic, Basic, Proficient, etc…”  Our students have little hearts and minds and emotions.  One of my students asked me the other day if I knew of anyone who could help her mom get a job, they are living in their cousin’s house and the cousin wants them to leave.  They have no money to move, and they have nowhere to go.  I asked my student “what do you think your mom will do?”  She started to cry and told me that they were “talking about going to a shelter.”  It was literally heartbreaking…again, these kids are not numbers to be crunched.  They are living, breathing kids with real problems who shouldn’t be boiled down to anonymous labels.

The field of education is not unique in its use of numbers to avoid accountability. Our economy is still struggling to recover from an elaborate accountability hoax perpetrated by the financial system. Home prices were appraised based on inflated comparables, not on what the market could reasonably support over the long run. Credit scores were assigned based on past payment histories, not on the ability to make future payments. Securities were rated based on mathematical models with faulty assumptions, not on realistic assessments of risk. When the system came crashing down, no one was accountable because everyone’s actions were in response to numbers, even though those numbers were meaningless.

This is a truly excellent point.  It has been years since the financial meltdown and I am still waiting to see the banksters that perpetrated this mess in leg irons.  I have been severely disappointed by the Obama administration as I had hoped that he would clean up the swamp on Wall Street, but he just dug the mote deeper in my opinion.  There is no accountability on Wall Street, and that is just how they want it.

Is the kind of wreckage brought on our economy what we desire for our education system? The obsession with test scores to the exclusion of other educational goals suggests that we are heading in that direction. The truth is that judging the quality of teachers and schools requires looking at more than just student test scores, that education has more dimensions than just reading and math, and that the single-minded goal of continually improving test scores is not realistic.

Professionals, whether they are in education, business, law, medicine, science or engineering, are hired because their specialized training and extensive experience endows them with superior judgment. Without the ability to exercise that judgment, there is no point to hiring a professional. There will always be errors in judgment. But do we want a society in which to avoid blame, no one uses judgment?

A society in which decisions are based solely on numbers instead of sound judgment is one in which no one is truly accountable.

Once again, we are dealing with little lives as teachers, not numbers.  We need to look at each child individually as they are all different, and a one size fits all data collection quantitative system doesn’t work.


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