The Difference Between Testing and Test-Based Accountability

Matt Yglesias writes that there is no contradiction between a rich curriculum and standardized testing. This is true. But there very well might be a contradiction between a rich curriculum and accountability tied to student standardized test scores. There is overwhelming evidence that when school funding and teacher/principal evaluation and pay are tied to scores on such exams, incidences of teaching-to-the-test, curriculum-narrowing, and even outright cheating and fraud go up. 

Consider the example Matt and I have discussed, on the benefits of reading and reciting poetry. After NCLB was instituted and third through eighth graders across the country were required to be tested annually in reading and math, ace education reporter Linda Perlstein wrote Tested, about a Maryland third-grade classroom struggling to achieve proficiency. Here’s how poetry was taught to those students:

The third-grade teacher I followed for my book Tested had a good sense of what was going to be on the Maryland School Assessment. The exam, and the benchmark tests designed in its image, didn’t change a whole lot from year to year—there were certain constructs that showed up again and again, and certain questions too. One question she’d come to expect was, “How do you know such-and-such is a poem?” The standard tested was identifying the elements of a poem. We all know that the best way to ingrain an enduring understanding of poetry is to have students not just read poems but to engage with them—especially, to write them. These kids didn’t do that. More than 30 times the teacher had the kids copy some form of this paragraph from the overhead projector: I know this is a poem because it has rhyme, stanzas and rhythm. It has rhyme because sea and free rhyme. It has stanzas because the paragraphs don’t indent. It has rhythm because…

This is bad instruction informed by test-based accountability. Opposing such accoutnability policies doesn’t necessarily mean that one in anti-test; rather, it’s important to note that the preferable use of tests is to diagnose the strengths and weaknesses of individual students, so as to better target instruction toward them. When testing policies are set up to punish adults, educators are incentivized to raise test scores at any cost, not to use tests to help better instruct children. 

If you want to learn more about the history, uses, and limitations of testing, please pick up Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us, by Daniel Koretz. 

8 thoughts on “The Difference Between Testing and Test-Based Accountability

  1. Stuart Buck

    “There is overwhelming evidence that when school funding and teacher/principal evaluation and pay are tied to scores on such exams, incidences of teaching-to-the-test, curriculum-narrowing, and even outright cheating and fraud go up.”

    It’s always baffling to see Ravitch and others publicizing any cheating scandal that emerges. It’s as if their mantra is “we’re so dishonest that you’d better not hold us accountable, or we’ll just cheat!!!” Maybe that’s an argument against accountability, but it’s even more so a cynical view of educators.

    As for the broader point, Ravitch’s book itself makes the claim (mirrored by Yglesias) that a rich curriculum helps kids actually do better on tests, and would therefore make “teaching to the test” superfluous.

    Ravitch didn’t seem aware, however, of the logical conclusion of her own argument: if educators do stupid curriculum-limiting things in a misguided response to testing, and if they could do better on testing by offering a rich curriculum, then why rant and rave about the testing when we could just tell the incompetent educators how to do better?

    Reply
  2. Megan Pledger

    The problem with teacher performance being tied to the test is that each teacher is held *solely* accountable for the results of the children for the year. If a teacher does something that will help the kids in their next year’s class then the next years teacher gets the benefit. This years teacher would be better off repeating some important information that’s going to be on the test rather than plant the seeds for next year. Even if repeating helps 1 child and bores 24, this is of benefit to the teacher. That’s because the optimal strategy for the teacher (to optimise this year’s test scores) is not the optimal strategy for kid’s learning over their school career (to be at their best at the end of their school career).

    The problem is that a rich curriculum gets them to the end in the best way but doesn’t get the best teacher scores on a year on year basis.

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  3. Stuart Buck

    I’m not convinced that your hypothetical example is a serious problem. If it is, then the only problem is that the test is poorly written, and the obvious solution is to broaden the test so that it includes items that are “planting the seeds for next year.”

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  4. Megan Pledger

    I visualise some of these seeds as open ended questions.

    Like when I am in the sandpit with three year olds and I ask them “how is it that the water flows from this lake to the next?” and they pretty much can’t tell me but in a couple of years they’ll meet gravity in school and having that early experience of thinking about why water moves gives them a leg up in their understanding. But how is it even possible to test three years olds on this knowledge which is never even imparted or understood but which the experience gvies them (hopefully) their “aha!” moment in grade 2.

    The grade 2 teachers gets all the benefits of teaching the gravity unit quickly because the seeds were planted pre-school.

    Reply
  5. Stuart Buck

    Well, even grade 2 isn’t tested under NCLB, let alone 3 year olds.

    But leaving that behind, I don’t think that it’s possible for there to be very much about education that is only geared towards future knowledge and that can’t be tested today. It can’t be the case that 3rd grade topics are mostly about things that we can’t (for some reason) test in 3rd grade but that will somehow be relevant in 4th grade, while 4th grade topics are things that we again can’t (for some reason) test in 4th grade but that will be somehow be relevant in 5th grade, and so on down the line. Education is mostly about teaching kids stuff here and now, isn’t it?

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  6. Vincent Vecera

    “If the poem’s score for perfection is plotted along the horizontal of a graph, and its importance is plotted on the vertical, then calculating the total area of the poem yields the measure of its greatness.

    “A sonnet by Byron may score high on the vertical, but only average on the horizontal. A Shakespearean sonnet, on the other hand, would score high both horizontally and vertically, yielding a massive total area, thereby revealing the poem to be truly great. As you proceed through the poetry in this book, practice this rating method. As your ability to evaluate poems in this matter grows, so will – so will your enjoyment and understanding of poetry.”

    Reply
  7. Kyle

    “The problem with teacher performance being tied to the test is that each teacher is held *solely* accountable for the results of the children for the year.”

    Well, good performance measures look to see if students have improved test results in future years. That’s also one way they are able to catch cheating.

    Reply
  8. bayan

    “The problem with teacher performance being tied to the test is that each teacher is held *solely* accountable for the results of the children for the year.”

    link to otellerx.com

    Well, good performance measures look to see if students have improved test results in future years. That’s also one way they are able to catch cheating.

    Reply

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