The Washoe County, Nevada (Reno-Sparks) school district currently measures the effectiveness of its schools on the results of standardized test scores. According to the latest news, it “needs more work.” Furthermore, in a new evaluation system to be launched next year, the measurement will be altered to a “new system will include a more detailed analysis that shows exactly how each grade and each class is doing [...] Under the new system, schools will be given credit for making progress, even if a student isn’t proficient.” Lovely.
Generally speaking, it’s nice when the mission of an organization matches the tools used to measure the accomplishment of the mission. Here’s the WCSD mission statement:
“The Washoe County School District provides each student the opportunity to achieve his or her potential through a superior education in a safe and challenging environment in order to develop responsible and productive citizens for our diverse and rapidly changing community.” [WCSD]
It’s a fine mission statement, we want responsible citizens and productive people in our society. But, perhaps someone can explain precisely HOW we determine if children who attend schools in the WCSD become “responsible and productive citizens for our diverse and rapidly changing community” by looking at standardized test scores?
A common dictionary definition of “responsible” says it’s an adjective describing accountability and the capacity to make moral decisions. How do we measure this capacity with criterion referenced tests?
“Productive,” when applied to a person, implies causality, creation, and generation. How do criterion referenced tests measure those qualities?
We measure what we value. If all we value are rudimentary skills in basic subjects, then standardized testing will certainly measure the ability of students to perform basic word interpretations and arithmetical operations. However, that capability is a long stretch from being accountable, moral, creative, and a force for progress in the community.
Asking Better Questions
Consider the following test questions, both intended to evaluate a youngster’s understanding of the modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States.
(1) Which of the following individuals was a major leader in the modern Civil Rights Movement in the United States, between 1948 and 1970? (a) Fannie Lou Hamer; (b) Frederick Douglass; (c) Sojourner Truth; (d) Harriet Tubman.
(2) Describe the political processes and events which restructured the politics of the modern Democratic and Republican Parties in southern states by providing examples of individuals, issues, and controversies involved in the formation of the Dixiecrats, the Freedom Democrats, and the Southern Strategy.
OK, the answer to which question would give a person a better idea if the student understood the moral issues intrinsic to the modern Civil Rights Movement? The problem, of course, is that there is no way to quantify the answer to the second question. One respondent might focus on the broad scope of the transformation of conservative Democrats into the modern Republican Party in the south, using a few examples to highlight the major trends. Another might take specific examples, such as Strom Thurmond and Fielding Wright, Fannie Lou Hamer, and Richard Nixon to create a narrative of political shifts. Some responses might be well written but short on logical construction, others might be logical but written with all the flowing grace of a bowling ball bouncing down a flight of steel stairs.
The Real Question
Do we define education as merely the transmittal of facts and processes necessary to read basic items written in English, and to compute basic problems using arithmetical operations? — OR — Do we define education as that which gives a student the intellectual tools to be responsible and productive in an increasingly complicated environment?
One is cheap — the other isn’t.