Opinion
Accountability Opinion

We Must Teach for ‘Range’ and ‘Depth’

By James H. Nehring — August 26, 2015 4 min read

There is a problem baked in to federal and state accountability policies when it comes to assessment of learning. The problem is so fundamental that any effort to develop assessment systems by way of the same accountability recipe will produce the same flat-as-a-pancake result.

The problem is this: Human judgment is poison to accountability, but it is the basic ingredient for assessment of learning.

Public accountability systems exist largely to ensure a meritocracy uncontaminated by nepotism, political favoritism, or anything that would threaten merit as the sole criterion for consequential decisions. This is the logic behind civil service exams, going back to ancient China and extending to modern public bureaucracies around the world. The system seeks to ensure that people get jobs based on their qualifications, not who they know or how much money they have or which political party they favor. The idea is to so marginalize—or, better, eliminate—human judgment in the evaluation process that no one can charge bias. Objective measures. A precise and scientific enterprise.

The testing regime at the heart of education accountability embraces this premise. Human judgment is a contaminant, so it’s best to bleach it out and replace it with clean, pure, multiple-choice, and, where unavoidable, “prose constructed response items” bolted down firmly with headache-inducing rubrics. Let the data drive decisions.

BRIC ARCHIVE

But judgment is essential to learning assessment. Sure, we can measure discrete skills, but the ability to tackle a complex project where identifying the right questions is part of the process, where work unfolds over days and weeks and revision is essential, does not lend itself to mere measurement.

However, such work can be assessed, a more nuanced but less precise enterprise involving evidence, intelligence, conversation, and judgment. As long as policy, in an era of accountability, relies chiefly on measurement, our schools have little incentive or pressure to teach for range or depth. Instead, we teach decontextualized, discrete skills, unsuited to most tasks offered up by the real worlds of work, citizenship, or personal life. If we switch to an assessment paradigm, however, everything changes.

In recent years, the public has recognized this problem, and the system has responded in the only way the system can: with a more elaborate test, more complicated measurement. The PARCC and Smarter Balance tests tied to the Common Core State Standards claim to incorporate “performance assessment,” co-opting the language of their detractors but delivering only a pathetic conceit: Fill-in-the-blank replaces multiple-choice, and open-response items pile on ever-more-elaborate rubrics. Associated time and costs weigh the whole system down. Testing has thus entered its own rococo phase. It has become an elaborate parody of itself.

What if, instead of marginalizing human judgment in the assessment of learning, we honor it? What if we admit that a test, no matter how valid, reliable, and aligned, is simply not up to the task because all it can do is measure, and what we need requires something more? What if we build a system around human judgment that minimizes its vagaries while bolstering its strengths? It’s how our legal system works.

Human judgment is poison to accountability, but it is the basic ingredient for assessment of learning.”

Consider: In complex matters involving human motive, incomplete information, context, and ethics, our best recourse is the collective judgment of informed adults—an impaneled jury. The jurors are provided with all the evidence and the best arguments on all sides, but the decision, ultimately, lies with them. Data are helpful, but do not “drive.” Measures inform, but people, in the end, make an assessment. In looking for a model upon which to base assessment of learning, we’ll do far better studying our democratic traditions than our civil service.

Some educational assessment systems, in both low- and high-income jurisdictions, work from this more appropriate starting point. Teams of teachers assess portfolios of student work using sensible rubrics keyed to public standards. Students present in juried exhibitions. Peer review ensures trustworthiness through schoolwide audits.

Such a system denies the policy world what it craves, simple numbers on a line, but there are still plenty of things about schools that we can usefully subject to measurement: resource allocation, student attendance, parent satisfaction, school climate, graduation rates, and more. When it comes to learning, however, in all its complexity, it is wise to remember the maxim not everything that counts can be counted.

Yes, assessment is flawed. Human judgment is imperfect. Juries make bad decisions. But I’ll sooner entrust a group of informed, vetted, and thoughtful school teachers with my child’s educational future than Pearson or PISA or the Educational Testing Service. If we believe that people, acting together with good information in good faith can’t do the work, then we are lost as a democracy. Thomas Jefferson got it exactly right over 200 years ago when he wrote: “I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of society but the people themselves, and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion.”

It’s time to stop measuring what can’t be measured, acknowledge the stunning complexity of learning, and build a system based on human judgment and authentic assessment.

Related Tags:

A version of this article appeared in the August 26, 2015 edition of Education Week as To Measure, or to Assess, Learning?

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Student Well-Being Webinar
Equity, Care and Connection: New SEL Tools and Practices to Support Students and Adults
As school districts plan to welcome students back into buildings for the upcoming school year, this is the perfect time to take a hard look at both our practices and our systems to build a
Content provided by Panorama Education
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Classroom Technology Webinar
Here to Stay – Pandemic Lessons for EdTech in Future Development
What technology is needed in a post pandemic district? Learn how changes in education will impact development of new technologies.
Content provided by AWS
School & District Management Live Online Discussion A Seat at the Table: Strategies & Tips for Complex Decision-Making
Schools are working through the most disruptive period in the history of modern education, facing a pandemic, economic problems, social justice issues, and rapid technological change all at once. But even after the pandemic ends,

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Accountability Opinion Absenteeism Is the Wrong Student Engagement Metric to Use Right Now
In a post-pandemic era for school accountability, let’s focus on measuring what matters.
Sara Johnson, Annette Anderson & Ruth R. Faden
4 min read
Figure being erased.
Getty
Accountability Biden Education Team Squashes States' Push to Nix All Tests but Approves Other Flexibility
The department has telegraphed its decision to deny states' requests to cancel federally mandated tests for weeks.
3 min read
A first-grader learns keyboarding skills at Bayview Elementary School in San Pablo, Calif on March 12, 2015. Schools around the country are teaching students as young as 6 years old, basic typing and other keyboarding skills. The Common Core education standards adopted by a majority of states call for students to be able to use technology to research, write and give oral presentations, but the imperative for educators arrived with the introduction of standardized tests that are taken on computers instead of with paper and pencils.
The U.S. Department of Education denied some states' requests to cancel standardized tests this year. Others are seeking flexibility from some testing requirements, rather than skipping the assessments altogether.
Eric Risberg/AP
Accountability Explainer Will There Be Standardized Tests This Year? 8 Questions Answered
Educators want to know: Will the exams happen? If so, what will they look like, and how will the results be used?
12 min read
Students testing.
Getty
Accountability Opinion What Should School Accountability Look Like in a Time of COVID-19?
Remote learning is not like in person, and after nine months of it, data are revealing how harmful COVID-19 has been to children's learning.
6 min read
Image shows a speech bubble divided into 4 overlapping, connecting parts.
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty and Laura Baker/Education Week