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Accountability Opinion

Test Scores and Reinforcing the Wrong Connections

By Deborah Meier — April 30, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

The good news is that most of the American people haven’t lost their common sense. And, above all, those closest to “the action”—parents, teachers, kids, and their families, plus a majority of those who work closely with schools or are “students” of schooling—haven’t. What they have lost is the power to be widely heard. The Education Equality Project et al are doing their best to “brainwash” us into thinking we all agree.

If there ever was a time when I appreciate the existence of organized “teacher voices,” it’s the days we’re living through. Thank goodness for teachers’ unions—weak as they are. The attacks on “big labor” are always intriguing. The labor leaders relish it because it’s hard to boast about powerlessness. Their opponents like it so they can blame unions.

You are right: The McKinsey report presents an argument for ending poverty. But you wouldn’t know it by the press it has received. A nation known worldwide for its egalitarian ideals is now least equal among modern societies; it’s even near the bottom on social mobility. So, it’s no surprise that it shows up also on test scores, as we’ve known since the invention of standardized testing a century ago. For some of them (Joel Klein) to now claim that NAEP is less reliable than the N.Y. State tests is absurd (For more, see the blog Skoolboy, on the Gotham Schools Web site, by Aaron Pallas).

At a time when the Big Boys have devastated our economy, in ways that affect us all, but are hardest—of course—on the most vulnerable, they are upping their propaganda: “It’s not our fault?” Poverty has been redefined: it’s the side effect of poor schooling! All those side effects would be cured—cheaply—if we required schools to perform properly. Schools are suffering from attracting the wrong people to teaching—“sub-par” people, in Chancellor Klein’s words—and too much allowed leeway in the practice of their mission.

They may succeed—Campbell’s Law suggests that possibility. Test scores could go up if we get the right set of tests, well-aligned with universal lesson plans, and the right incentives for sticking to them! But we might not be one inch closer to eliminating poverty or raising the level of intelligent decision-making. That’s where McKinsey gets it wrong. The magical effect on our economy of higher test scores depends on the existence of enough jobs that pay better; jobs that “require” better-educated people and that can’t be outsourced more cheaply. And scores that don’t rank! Their calculations are unbelievably naïve—at best. It’s as though if everyone’s scores went up, then everyone’s wages would, too. Who will make the hospital beds, sweep the floors, and mow the lawns? And why shouldn’t they be well-paid, too?

Andrew Delbanco’s story in the latest New York Review of Books notes that “more than 400,000 students nationally from families with incomes below $50,000” met the standards for four-year college admissions and yet were unable to attend because of financial barriers. A rich kid with low scores is more likely to go to a four-year college than a poor student with high scores, he says.

I regularly meet “well-educated” people who claim that, were it not for NCLB, they wouldn’t have known that a test score gap existed. The claim, at best, is a brutal reminder of the existence of “two Americas.” Where have they been for the past 100 years?

As long as we use test scores as our primary evidence for being poorly educated we reinforce the connection—and the bad teaching to which it leads. If by some course of action we could get everyone’s score the same—even by cheating—I’d be for it, so we could get on to discussing the interactions that matter in classrooms and schools: between “I, Thou, and It.” I’ve spent 45 years trying, unsuccessfully, to shift the discussion to schools as sites for learning. Such a “conversation” might not produce economic miracles, but it would over time connect schooling to the kind of learning that can protect both democracy and our economy. Because that’s where schools are (or are not) powerful.

My definition of being “well-educated” varies from day to day—but it focuses on a more equal capacity for everyone to be heard in the discourses of power. For rich people, money (and connections) can substitute for smarts. They can “buy” lobbyists, bribe politicians, not to mention the influence of just hobnobbing. But the rest of us need to organize and deliberate wisely, so that we, too, can pay lobbyists and “bribe” politicians with our more numerous votes and voices.

So I judge a school in part by the preparation it provides for entering into the arguments that shape our politics and our economics. “The academics” at best should give us the tools and habits of mind to act wisely. Mission Hill laid out five such “habits:” What’s the evidence? Is there another viewpoint that fits the evidence as well or better? Is there a pattern? What if…? And why does it matter? We organized our schools, our curriculum, faculty culture, and graduation requirements to match such habits. No student leaves our schools without publicly demonstrating them over and over again.

It doesn’t level their test scores—although it improves them. But it levels some real-life challenges over the long haul. I don’t want to pretend that even our greatest schools will by themselves reverse the wisdom of an old Billie Holiday song: “Them that’s got shall get; them that’s not shall lose. So the Bible said and it still is news”…….to some folks. Unless both the “gots” and “nots” decide they have a common interest in changing the rules of the game, gross inequalities will over time erode our economy and our democracy.


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