Accountability Opinion

Defining Achievement as More Than Test Scores

By Deborah Meier — November 12, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

The bad news does seem to overwhelm the good news of late.

For starters, when talking about education, we need a new vocabulary. The term “achievement” has become synonymous not with the intellectual tasks of schooling, the “using one’s mind well” as Ted Sizer put it, but with whatever is measured by multiple- choice tests. The more answers right the better—of course—but otherwise there’s little of intellectual quality being measured.

If it’s “using one’s mind well” that should be at stake, then one might imagine we need tests that rest on demonstrations of how students use their minds! That should be at the heart of any “high-stakes” assessment. And if we could get over our aversion to sampling, even standardized tests could in fact also help us gain understanding of quite complex matters.

One of our readers suggested that David Leonhardt‘s essay on health care in last weekend’s New York Times Magazine was evidence on behalf of measurement. Indeed, what you and I are—I think—arguing against is measuring the wrong things, in the wrong ways, and in the process corrupting the ends we have in mind.

The story of the work of Dr. Brent James, as Leonhardt describes it, is not a refutation, but a support for good assessment. It is a call for assessments that start from the bottom up. And, while the health field has one enormous advantage—little disagreement about what constitutes improved health, except at the two ends of life—it’s not easy to gather the right data. With educational assessment, we are stuck with the fact that different “schools of thought” actually exist about means and ends. For example, in my own field and yours, the way we examine the past too often betrays our “deterministic” view of human history. The “causes” of World War I are taught as set knowledge, suggesting that another history couldn’t have happened. This mindset undermines democracy and civic participation. Wouldn’t it be grand if students were asked “how otherwise” the story of WWI could have played out? And, why not? One of the “habits of mind” that was central to the schools I founded was precisely that: “Supposing that, what if?”. But this is a controversial viewpoint—should federal policy settle this difference in outlook?

It takes deep knowledge to struggle through the historical data with such ends in mind, but it is precisely the kind of mindset that history in a democracy needs. Or, so I would argue. It is the mindset that enlivens the debate over the history being written in our own lives. And there is no age too young to start such “imaginary” thinking, based on sound factual knowledge. In fact, playfulness is not just the task of early childhood, but the task of every citizen who cares about the future. Schools rarely do much to keep such “playfulness” alive, but democracy depends upon it.

I’ve just returned from New Orleans, and a wonderful three days of both celebrating the ideas of Ted Sizer and considering where next to take them. Between sessions I went from my luxury hotel in the French Quarter out to the lower Ninth Ward—that part of New Orleans that still looks like the disaster just happened. We were visiting a school in the Ninth Ward that reopened thanks to the strong will of the principal, her staff, and the school community. But the difficulties in New Orleans made me wonder if anyone is responsible for that old-fashioned idea: the common good.

President Obama’s message throughout the campaign was a reiteration of the concept of the “common good,” at a time when we were experiencing the impact of a society built around “the more I get, the better.” But I agree with you, Diane. What we’re hearing now is rather different than what we expected. Neither Education Secretary Arne Duncan’s failure in Chicago, nor the mayor’s in N.Y.C., nor Michele Rhee’s in Washington, D.C., are on the table; it’s as though we can sweep that inconvenient evidence under the rug by a constant repetition of good PR.

Producing schools that do right by all children AND by the nation is, in fact, more complex than rocket science. It means, for example, concerning ourselves with the children in that other ward across the levees, not just our own. Democracy works most easily when our personal short-term interests and the interests of the least advantaged match. But democracy can’t depend on that.

If Iraq and Afghanistan are about the struggle for democracy, than why can’t we see our schools as just as important in this struggle? What we spend in a week or month in Iraq/Afghanistan would allow us to lower class sizes nationwide to match what the most powerful citizens demand for their own children.

So where do we go with this issue, Diane? We need policies that don’t make it too easy for the most advantaged to do right for their kids at the expense of those least advantaged. That means, to begin with, defining achievement as something more, not less, ambitious than test scores. The rich can survive that, perhaps, but the nation can’t.


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