Assessment Opinion

Improve Democracy, Not Tests

By Deborah Meier — March 13, 2014 5 min read
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Deborah Meier continues her conversation with Robert Pondiscio of Democracy Prep.

Dear Robert,

It’s not and never will be a perfect world. You’ve hit upon one example. Is profiteering off school materials not legit? Should teachers get paid less than the market rate because they are teaching in public schools?

Dilemmas abound and exactly where to draw the line will always be tricky. But even if we’re not sure we know very well that it’s a subject of universal concern. The obligation to pay close attention to conflicts of interest has similar concerns at stake. Even if it’s devilishly hard to know when self-interest must give way to public interest it is no reason for ignoring the dilemma.

I was always amused at the quality of masking tape that the board sent to our school. The only nonstick masking tape I ever used. I decided it came from the “seconds” supply. It’s easier to get away with shoddy goods when the users are two or more steps removed from the producer.

Similarly, I grumbled when the price of something I ordered through the board cost me MORE than at the local hardware store. I was always irritated when I couldn’t buy beautiful second-hand books from my wonderful Book Barn with school funds. Nor could I give away books or furniture that were being discarded. Why? For fear that I’d be making some illegal money selling off public property, or that my friendly bookstore was owned by a relative? And so on. On the other hand, I’m not prepared to just say—"trust me.”

In small schools, as I used to argue, the amount I could cheat the system out of was generally so small that the issue was fairly academic. (I love using the word that way.)

But over the years, you are right, we’ve gradually grown accustomed to more and more services being delivered by private contractors. Like food services, custodial services, et al. It’s a slippery slope ... until the idea of “public” ceases to have meaning. Who ever imagined we’d have private state prisons? I used to joke about selling street names in NYC to the highest bidder. It’s come to pass. When will Yankee Stadium fall in line?

My mother was shocked when middle-class women seemed delighted to use their clothes and purses as advertising space. But she was always a stickler. My more realistic father, who was executive director of the agency that funded New York City Jewish philanthropies, noted that (in fact) most of their funding came not from wealthy philanthropists but from the public coffers. He thought the public should be represented on the boards of these private agencies.

There are even more dangers in using public money to fund essentially privately run schools—including ideological bias. That there are already myriad loopholes for corruption that are now common practice—like defense spending—doesn’t assuage me. In fact, it infuriates me even more when it’s done under the banner of advancing “civil rights.”

But, you say, “a good outcome is a good outcome and worthy of public support at the going rate,” whatever that is. How to measure “outcomes;" that’s the rub. If forced to judge the “outcomes” of my own children’s youth I’d be nonplussed—what counts? (First and foremost: Who treats their mother best?)

As an amateur expert on psychometrics, I’d certainly not use any of the standardized tests produced for this purpose. I’ve studied them. They include more measurement error than judging student outcomes by family wealth does.

Not to mention bias. It’s too long a subject to demonstrate the degree of bias in this format, but read In Schools We Trust for the two chapters that deal with this subject. And read The Nation essay by Jay Rosner (of Princeton Review) on the bias imbedded in SAT items—e.g. the items on which blacks do better than whites, but are virtually never used.

I applaud ETS for thinking about how its products affect the classroom. Your quotation from David Steiner claiming that “we know from international research that well-designed testing can drive learning outcomes” needs at least some citations. I know of no research that does or can make such a claim. Furthermore, Steiner’s notion that tests can make up for a lack of agreement on curricula is an odd way to solve an intellectual disagreement.

If I don’t know anyone who thinks all testing is an abomination, can there be such a one? But the system of psychometrically standardized testing (which we presently deviate from on a large scale) never pretended it could predict accurately for individuals, nor create a rank order that is reliable to the individual—especially at the two ends of the curve. Bias is inevitable since the tests are based on presumptions about intelligence that have gotten harder to defend. Right answers are the ones the “right” people get “right.” They tell us mostly that good test-takers get good test scores. Thus, on a “good” test they know how the tests scores—in general—will look well before they are used in schools.

There are other well-known forms of assessment which are less prone to error. The actual driver’s road test is harder to cheat than the absurd multiple-choice test that accompanies it. Chefs are hardly judged by their paper-and-pencil responses either. Nor ice skaters. University’s give PhDs based on faculty judgment. Classroom teachers give tests of various sorts, and they learn something about their own teaching and their individual students in the process

I used to think about what kind of tests could push educators into supporting “my kind” of classroom or school practices. I never found a way to prevent bad test prepping. But I know plenty of ways to learn from observers, including those who read my students’ work, interviewed them, etc. It was that kind of “test” that the schools in the Coalition of Essential Schools (Ted Sizer) promoted in the late 80s and 90s. Teaching “to” them was exactly what we hoped for. We’re still hanging on to such practices in some places ... I have my fingers crossed.

In the end, we need to remember that democracy was invented as a way to hold those in authority accountable for their actions. Let’s keep improving on democracy rather than testing. We’ve already strayed too far from that fundamental invention. Listening to a show on TV reminded me that it wasn’t so long ago that public figures were unafraid to say that they didn’t trust “the people” and considered it their duty to protect society from their deficiencies. They acknowledged, and applauded, the role of quiet manipulation. (The announcer was quoting columnist Walter Lippman and PR pioneer Ed Bernays.) Perhaps it’s a step forward that such elitists no longer say it aloud. Maybe not.

Yes, Robert, in some ways I’m exceedingly conservative. I don’t want another parent of an 8-year-old have to ask me if their child reads well, or tell me his former teacher said he was a 3.7 reader. I want schools that insist that such a parent realize she/he already has the means to know how well or badly her own child reads—and if not, we’ll show them how. That’s what saved my middle child from remediation in 3rd grade—I knew his test score was a misreading of his actual skills.

“Know thyself,” and all of that stuff goes over well with me.


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