Tuesday, April 30, 2013

The Case For Standardized Testing (Part II): Fundamental Hollowness of Accountability

Inspired by Kathleen Porter-Magee of The Fordham Institute, I present a series on the remarkable weakness of the case for standardized testing in our education policy and education system. You can read part one here

The Case For Standardized Testing: The Fundamental Hollowness of "Accountability"

So-called "Accountability" in education is about a particular formulation. The idea is to give educators, schools and or/districts control over the means and methods, but to hold them responsible for the ends.

For decades, we looked at the inputs into schooling. We looked at funding. We looked at teacher qualifications. We looked at textbooks. We looked at curriculum. At management strategies. We looked at what educators were given and/or tried to do. But, so the argument goes, we did not look at what they accomplished -- or failed to accomplish.

The so-called "Accountability Movement" has been an attempt to shift attention from inputs to outputs. Educators, schools and districts can control the means. But they are responsible for accomplishing the ends.

Whether or not you agree with this approach, it is what we have today. And those ends are examined through standardized testing. So-called "Accountability" policies are testing policies. They depend on standardized tests.


Nancy and Ted Sizer wrote, "Education is the worthy residue that remains, long after the lessons have been forgotten." I talk about "Lessons worth learning for a lifetime."*

* I don't say it anywhere nearly as well as they did, do I?


Our standardized tests do not measure the important outcomes of education or schooling.

Think about the great lessons you learned in school. Think about the lasting impact. Think about that great teacher who made a difference in your life. Can any of that be tested with a standardized test?

We should recognize what standardized tests can do, says Ms. Porter-Magee. I agree. They can test individual skills, usually in isolation, without authentic contexts or purposes. The Standards of Educational and Psychological Tests point to the importance of testing one thing at a time, so that you can be sure you are not conflating different things and can be sure what the testee can and cannot do. "Standardized" refers to standard questions in a standard testing environment.

Simply as a matter of good professional practice, standardized tests cannot assess students in authentic contexts and cannot assess their skills or knowledge in the kind of interrelated use that matters most.

What standardized tests can do is access the building blocks of authentic proficiency or mastery. But building blocks are not the goals of education and schools. Building blocks are -- by definition --  the means or intermediate outcomes along the way.

There, so-called "Accountability" policy is fundamentally hollow. It is supposed to examine the ends and goals of education, but substitutes examination of intermediate outcomes for the actual goals. In doing so, it replaces accountability for actual meaningful outcomes with reductive, simplified and dumbed down goals.

By substituting what we know how to test quickly and cheaply for the real goals of education, the "Accountability" movement has betrayed its own basic formula and set back efforts to improve meaningful educational outcomes for students.

I am not saying that those who support the "Accountability" movement have done this intentionally. Rather, it's been a laziness; they have been content with what's convenient. They do not look closely at what tests actually can do, at what current test development practices are, at what the best research and scholarship says about what we know and what we know how to do. They insist that these tests are good enough simply because they are available.

And in doing so, they have lost touch with the basic principle of the "Accountability" movement. They do not even live up to their own formula.

Having gutted their own theory of action, proponents of standardized testing have virtually eliminated any chance they can make a strong case to defend their tests or their policies.

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