Deborah Meier added a comment to the end of the value-added thread from last week. (Thanks for stopping by eduwonkette’s blog, Deb!) Her point is too important to overlook. She writes that standardized tests of reading proficiency are only loosely correlated with good reading habits—i.e., that a student can score well on a test of reading proficiency without demonstrating the habits of mind that could enable him or her to engage in a critical discussion of a text. Meier also writes that we do not have tests that measure “the more significant intellectually sound habits of heart and mind fundamental to being a well-educated member of society. The capacity to confront a phenomenon of interest in ways that help one best understand it, and then to make use of the knowledge acquired, is surely more important than being able to guess the one out of four ‘best answer.’”
She’s absolutely right, in my view. Preparing children and youth to be citizens in a democracy is a critical purpose of schooling. eduwonkette has written that there’s a lot to schooling that can’t possibly be measured by standardized tests – I think my favorite line is from the title of a post in January riffing on New York City’s “Thank a Teacher” nomination process, “They Never Say, ‘Thanks for Improving My Test Scores!’" – but it’s easy to fall into the trap of treating the current testing regime as the natural order of things.
We need to be mindful that public schooling is now what institutional analysts such as Pat Burch call an organizational field, with lots of actors influencing our definitions of schooling and its outcomes, including textbook publishers, testing firms, test-prep firms, and a variety of other commercial entities. Lots of commercial enterprises and non-profits owe their livelihood to public education, and are engaged in an ongoing project to shape our definitions of “real school.”
Testing is big business in the U.S. Non-profits such as the Educational Testing Service and ACT have annual gross revenues approaching $900 million and $400 million, respectively. ETS’s K-12 testing operation had gross revenues of $172 million in their 2006 IRS filings. On the for-profit side, Pearson Education had gross revenues worldwide of $4.6 billion in 2006, with $600 million in adjusted operating profit. Their annual report crowed of a “healthy outlook in school testing underpinned by 2005 contract wins with a lifetime value of $700m (including Texas, Virginia, Michigan and Minnesota).” McGraw-Hill Education had revenues of $2.7 billion in 2007, with operating profit of $400 million.
With this much money, and more, at stake, you can bet that there are ongoing projects to define tests and testing as the appropriate way of defining what counts as good education. They tap into a logic that defines the modern world as increasingly rational, and society as a collection of individuals with increasingly differentiated roles, identities and personal preferences.
I’m not sure what the right approach is to counter all of this. At one point, I thought that giving politicians, educators and parents vivid representations of good teaching and good learning –e.g., videos, or portfolios--would be sufficient to persuade them that test scores don’t come close to capturing what we aspire to in public education. But I haven’t seen that strategy be successful. Preaching to the choir isn’t going to do it – we need to find a way to put people in the pews. Readers, do you have ideas?
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