Assessment Opinion

We’re Relying on an Absurd Definition of Achievement

By Deborah Meier — September 17, 2009 4 min read
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Dear Diane,

Yes, the ways in which standardized bubble-in tests are open to abuse are rampant—and gaming of test scores has increasingly important repercussions. In the long run it leads to an increasingly toxic education in the name of “standards.” I urge you to read the two chapters in “In Schools We Trust” on my own experience and subsequent investigation of standardized testing for 7-year-olds. I discovered, in my effort to “prep” them, that while reading tests may in part test the ability to read—comprehend (vs. re-code into sounds)—they are even better at detecting one’s class and cultural sub-group. Of course, there were exceptions. There are ways to raise scores via prepping, but it can only diminish the “gap” if those at the top get less effective prepping. I published the recorded interviews I conducted with students—in 1972, and Jay Rosner has shown how it works for the SATs, and many have followed. Between 1980 and 1990, it seemed we had won the battle. By 2000, they had returned with a vengeance. Thus many friends and allies suggested I give up on this particular line of reasoning.

Meanwhile, we’ve witnessed a massive redistribution of wealth. Everyone has their culprit. Too often, “lazy” children, parents, or educators/teachers? In a nation that ranks near the bottom in services for the young, not to mention a bigger gap between rich and poor than we’ve seen since the 1920s, maybe this is myopic? “Forget it,” friends suggest. You’ll just be accused of making excuses for bad schools.

What you have documented, Diane, is eerily close to the kind of data abuse that helped create our current financial crisis. We go blindly ahead. There seem equally few lessons learned from either crisis. It’s apparently easier to hold children and teachers’ “feet to the fire” than the creators of the greatest economic crisis of our lives—especially Harvard grads. Note: The latter did fine on their SATs.

Many reputable studies have also demonstrated that, based on such tests, no evidence exists for most of the Race to the Top-NCLB-like reforms. Just rhetoric. Just more shifting of power away from the public sector. The CREDO study you mention suggests that only 17 percent of the charter schools do better on tests than their comparable noncharters, and more do worse. Try that with a drug test, and how long would it remain on the shelf? (Even though, in fact, low scores is not one of my complaints against charters.)

What’s the alternative, critics argue! Is a bad drug better than none at all, I respond?

In fact, we have alternatives—some pioneered in the good old USA and others in those much-vaunted international comparisons. For example, there is no competitor that relies as much as much as we do on testing of our sort. None. None. None. (A light bulb should go on.)

Alas, there are no simple magic bullets even among the reforms I like. Partly because we don’t all have the same agenda when it comes to outcomes—our priorities differ, what we’re willing to trade off or risk differs. Also, any reform package depends on its implementation and few recipes are foolproof. Trying to copy the KIPP model or the Deborah Meier “model” won’t produce the same thing.

And, then there’s the ornery fact that when today’s reformers refer to proof of “achievement” they mean something different than you and I do, Diane. Achievement equals standardized test scores in reading and math; others add test scores in other subjects, including aptitude/IQ tests. Everything else gets called “soft skills.” It’s as absurd as calling the written driving test the real achievement and the road test a measure of “soft” skills.

I’d argue that this applies to most intellectual knowledge and skills. We’re relying on an absurd definition of achievement—at best. It’s not lack of alternatives, but a lack of interest in having real standards that take into account that we are all not the same and that we actually don’t want to be all the same. Our interests, passions, talents, and even our priorities differ. High standards can be met in honest and serious ways if we are prepared to take the harder route—starting with each child. If we care enough about both means and ends consistent with democracy it will not be easy and will not be based on the need to rank order individuals, schools, or nations. There are plenty of good alternatives.

Any publicly funded school must serve, for better or worse, the public good—the complex demands of a modern democracy. But the public good is also met best when each individual’s private good (his/her passions and interests) are also met. But how we sort out what best serves both will always be an art, not a hard or exact science.

There is no single “best” model—but there are bad ones. Neither the common good nor personal good can come out of schools that do not treat all members of their community with respect. (Respect, of course, is no easier to define than achievement.) Perhaps the reason I love “Tales of Priut Almus*" by Robert Belenky—which describes the time he spent in a Russian shelter for homeless youth—is the unmeasurable respectfulness with which they responded to the young people in their care. Belenky says “offering a short-term, flexible, familial, community-based home may be the most useful gift (offered) these young people.” But he actually describes far more than that. So, too, in any respectful school there is more than that—but nothing without that.


The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.