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What Kind of Achievement Should Count Most?

Dear Diane,

Deciding how to measure achievement depends on first defining it. The equating of "performance" and "achievement" with whatever the ELA and math tests tell us puts us in rather an awkward position—and I include in that my colleagues and friends in the AFT and NEA. Randi Weingarten's remarks got badly reported by the press, but the actual speech makes it easier to do so than was necessary. Nowhere does it clearly state that the AFT does not accept test scores as evidence of good teaching—thus the misleading headlines.

But your argument, Diane, makes a similar mistake, almost like you are calling for more testing. The arguments against value-added testing for NYC, or New York state or any other such tests are sound—as you note earlier. They cannot now serve that purpose.

It's time we figured out whose judgment on such matters we might trust. Apparently neither principals nor teachers are trusted with the capacity to do so. For good reasons. Most schools—as Harvard's Richard Elmore noted in his essay published in 2002 by the Albert Shanker Institute—are not organized in a way that enables the adults to build a collective consensus on standards or pedagogies, nor in ways that encourage each other to review each other's work. Nor do we value the quality of evaluation enough to engage in periodic and serious external reviews. Nothing less than that, he argues, will begin to do the job.

So we've replaced human beings with scores on tests never designed for the multiple, and often contradictory, purposes they are now serving.

But the crux of the issue is defining achievement. What kind of achievement should count most in the institutions that democracy builds to ensure its future well-being?

Claiming that higher test scores and more diplomas will lead to prosperity is a sleight of hand for which well-educated reporters should not fall. The assumption that if twice as many people get a B.A. an M.A. or a Ph.D., twice as many higher-paying jobs will appear is a colossal fraud. But even more shameful is the assumption that knowing "right answers" on a standardized test is a way to judge even future employees, much less future citizens.

The youngsters who live in communities in which the adults they know who are employed is precipitously declining. Kids know this. The fact that decent-paying jobs for high school graduates, graduates of two- or four-year colleges, and even M.A.'s are fast disappearing, and prisons are housing more and more of our young people can't be a secret to most adolescents. No, Virginia, jobs do not magically appear because B.A.'s do.

The AFT & co. need to lead a campaign of education, along with others, that credibly confronts the myths and lies that abound. The new media hasn't the investigative staff, nor the audience to fulfill this task.

But, even the best reporting can't do a lot if we avoid the real question: what do we want from schools—other than "higher test scores"? If that's all we want, we'll get it, and we will continue having a test prep system. The rich as well as the poor will pay a price for such a shabby goal—and guess who will continue to be better at it? (Meanwhile, more colleges have made the SAT voluntary since FairTest began to push that idea, but more high schools are prepping teenagers for SATs at a younger and younger age!)

Let's place the definition of being well-educated—"higher test scores"—against a few other old and new alternatives. Then we can begin to ponder how we could reasonably make any judgments about which purposes we want to design schools—and assessment—around. We might even agree to disagree.

A reader of these columns, Ogden Hamilton, wrote me, in response to a quote from Alice in Wonderland in last week's blog, with the following:

"I've heard the folk wisdom put that if you don't care where you're going, you cannot get lost. It's always used like the ancient Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times." Seems to me that in education, not knowing where we are going may keep us from admitting that we're lost, but it cannot ameliorate the terrible consequences of not knowing where we are going and acting as if we do. Our situation just screams for pluralism now, not national standards."

He sums up where I stand these days so well that I'll end here.

Almost.

I'd like to pass a second Meier's Law, and a third. (The first: Those who require students to take a standardized test must be required to take it, too, and make their scores public.)

Law Two: Before anyone writes a new law or creates a new commission, we all agree to read at least some of what's already been written. Even if we don't agree on "standards," maybe we can agree on a lean list of our favorites. Then after we've read them, let the conversation begin.

Law Three: Meanwhile, whenever we see the word "achievement," replace it with "test scores"—unless other evidence is cited.

Deborah

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