Student Achievement Opinion

Confusing Test Scores With ‘Being Well-Educated’

By Deborah Meier — February 26, 2009 4 min read

Dear Diane,

A great Tuesday letter. It has outraged some of my friends—whose strategic approach now is to applaud anything moving in our direction and speak quietly about anything we profoundly disagree with.

Yes, alas: Duncan’s office is not yet offering a change either of us can believe in.

To stimulate the economy, Obama’s education plan includes more focus on charters, and for teachers, schools, and districts that implement so-called “merit pay” based on student test scores. Aside from misdirecting the goals of education, it misdirects the path to a good education. By confusing test scores with “being well-educated,” and the motivation to do a good job as synonymous with financial reward, we undermine values essential to democracy.

The “rulers” of our economy had plenty of incentives to build a healthy economy. Trillions. They spent their smarts on making sure they increased their share of the pie. And if their pay had depended on decreasing the earning gap, I suspect they’d have hired statisticians to play with that data, just as they did with the economy—and just as their educational counterparts have done with education data. Diane, you have been a steady voice in alerting us to misinformation, especially on the NYC front. Who will be doing this for the new Duncan DOE? Hopefully it won’t be people who perhaps need to speak softly to avoid placing themselves outside the circle of power. Critics are needed as much when we win an election as when we lose one. One advantage of being older and retired is that we have less to lose.

The more high stakes the data, the more corrupt become the data—which I’m told is called Campbell’s Law. We poison the well once we promise folks more money for “better data.” When “data” (e.g. test scores) are in the driver’s seat, beware. We also need more independent “juries” to analyze and make recommendations based on independent information. The phrase itself “data-driven,” rather than “data-informed,” gives me the chills.

We also need sensible longitudinal research, to explore the connection between test scores, school models, etc., and “doing better” 10 years out. This is uncharted territory. We might explore, in short, what “doing better” could or should mean in real life.

I recently read about a high and mighty American who was lauded for “freezing” his pay—at $11 million a year. It’s not merely that such wages are a waste, maybe even bad for his particular business operation, but that they corrupt the concept of democratic society (one vote per citizen, et al). It reminds me of the story about Marie Antoinette offering to give the poor cake, or the joke about how even a poor man was guaranteed a place to sleep—if only under the bridges of Paris. (I have no doubt messed up both stories, but I suspect, Diane, you know their mythical sources.)

Whether we’re talking about schools that teach the academic disciplines or the interdisciplinary “habits of mind” and “heart” that underlie a complex democratic society, or even “2lst Century skills,” we should be alarmed at the direction the newly staffed Department of Education seems headed. The most heralded change is in finding a new title for NCLB, rather than tackling its basic hypocrisy. Despite (or because) those closest to our schools—school boards, parents, teachers—oppose the testing mania, those in D.C. seem as disposed as ever to ignore such “self-interested” opinions.

Tests, as we know them today, are not even good sources for knowing if Johnny can read. Does becoming “skilled” at the components of reading tests translate to becoming “whole” readers”? And, if it does, can we assume this translates into reading more and more wisely? There are ways to make for technically better readers that do not make for a better-educated citizen or employee, much less a creative and inventive one.

Being taught early, over and over, that making a predetermined “wrong answer” (out of a predetermined four or five) has serious intellectual and social consequences is dangerous. It leads to bad pedagogy. It’s precisely in school that it’s important to value the exercise of judgment based on evidence rather than being taught how to slyly “guess” at the one “right” answer.

Children, starting from birth, as well as at ages 3, 4, and 5, are still highly motivated to make sense of the world without any prodding. Regardless of their backgrounds. In fact, you have to prod children to stop doing so. Which is what we do at the average school—by state design. I can attest to this based on evidence from almost any source. So I am alarmed at hearing that we plan to stimulate the economy by doing this with kids younger and younger. Such schooling will, over time, undermine both our economy and democracy. We need funds for our youngest—including publicly supported child care of high quality and an end to conditions highlighted in The New York Times, Page One, “In Turnabout, Children Take Caregiver Role”. It’s referring to preteen caretakers!

My visits to Chicago and DeKalb kindergartens (with exceptions) scared me—the absence of playfulness has become so normal! I’d love to know where you stand on this, Diane. We could even use a little disagreement!


P.S. One and all, read Mike Rose’s blog—or did I already suggest that? Also Mike Klonsky’s, who disagrees with me for our sharp critique of Duncan. Finally, I’d also point our readers to your recent piece for Politico.com, Diane.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.