Assessment Opinion

Honest Information Is Essential

By Deborah Meier — September 27, 2007 4 min read

Dear Diane,

I don’t want to spend too much time on testing. But a few words! One: I’m arguing that tests are a poor way to assess schooling. I’m not arguing, as Paul Hoss suggested in a recent response, that given other concerns we can’t focus as much on cognitive aims with poor kids. But I do agree with him that we need to provide a lot of support to poor families above and beyond schools so that we are not “distracted” by other issues.

Diane, I don’t view the word “politically” negatively. I like and believe in politics. And anytime I turn over something to “experts” I take for granted that I’m going to get a “viewpoint"—which I may agree or disagree with. There may be a “majority” opinion and several “minority” ones, but even where “votes” (politics) decide, that doesn’t prove who is right. Power and money have influence; so do good arguments. Fortunately in politics decision are never final; there’s always tomorrow.

The “expertise” involved in deciding what kids “should” be reading like completely baffles me. Teachers from time immemorial have thought that whoever taught the kids before they got to them wasn’t doing a good job—"they oughta already know x and y”. As Richard Rothstein reminds us—so it has been and always will be. So the fact that NAEP is designed by experts doesn’t cut it with me. The advantage of the other kind of “normed” test is that we find out how kids actually handle various material given to them. We can then have our wish list. That reporters—and educators, too—have misreported scores is, of course, a problem! Just as they now misreport so-called criterion test scores, too. If psychometricians (test-making experts) had principles or guts they’d discipline their own field. I presume there are state-of-the art standards regarding the proper size of samples, reliability measures, and what tests can claim to predict. Bah! Wrong assumption. Standards are just for kids.

I’d support a normed national test (NAEP-like) in literacy and math given on a sampled basis every few years to assess school districts—for informational purposes. To keep systems honest. States might require individual scores for students, but the federal government should neither mandate it nor reward them for doing so. Schools might also choose to do so. Hopefully all these would be informational—not high stakes, in nature.

When it comes to other subject disciplines let them set standards and try to persuade us to follow them. In fact, Diane, academic disciplines have disputes about what body of knowledge is central and these change over time. Let lay citizens through their own methods decide whether these fit their school and approach. We barely scratch the surface of what is possible today; let us encourage experimentation.

What worries us both now are two central concerns—and having just come back from visiting teachers in Indiana, it isn’t a NYC problem!

(1) Test scores are now our definition of “achievement”! Reforms are being driven by finding ways to avoid schools being declared failures. There need to be ways to “red flag” based on data without presuming the school is failing; and solutions should address broader forms of learning than test improvement.

(2) Teachers, parents, students and local communities need to be reconnected to their schools in powerful ways. For the sake of learning and democracy.

The latter is what scared me in Indiana—the extent to which teachers have been cowed into thinking they are not experts. As a result they fall back on priding themselves on dedication rather than expertise. It took a MacArthur designation as a genius before I was acknowledged as an “expert”. Otherwise, I was often invited to speak in order to get a “feel” for what life was like on the ground. The Generals gave the marching orders. Of course! But when it comes to schools (at least), as with families, there is no way to second guess from afar. No two kids or communities are quite alike—even though they have much to say to each other. Creating the conditions for “trust"—with skepticism—is the best we can do, plus plenty of resources.

But honest information is essential—how else can those in the field and far from it have real conversation, dialogue, and persuade each other of anything if there is no commonly trusted data. I honestly don’t know the answer to this conundrum. I’m hoping that if we can institutionalize the practice of getting multiple forms of evidence from multiple sources we’ll be in better shape. In short, your tendency is to look to more centralized federal expertise and me to look to the least centralized local ones. That says something about our histories, which suggests that probably we need a balance of both.

Meanwhile, I’m pondering what we need to do to keep teachers in the field—in the here and now—as a loud, noisy obstreperous voice to speak back to the power of money, corporations, and misinformed media—and reach kids at the same time.


P.S. It was a combination of laymen, teachers and psychometricians who convinced NY State that the data collected locally by a group of high schools was more compelling than test scores. Thus a few dozen schools got waivers from having to focus on and meet all the NY State’s Regents exams. That’s a good example for us to look into—a lesson for the future.

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