Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The Smoke and Mirrors of Standardized Testing

eduwonkette interviews Daniel Koretz, author of Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us.

She asks an important question:
EW: What are the implications of score inflation for both measuring and attenuating achievement gaps? Because schools serving disadvantaged students face more pressure to increase test scores via the mechanisms you describe, I worry that true achievement gaps may be unchanged - or even growing - while they appear to be closing based on high-stakes measures.

DK: I share your worry. I have long suspected that on average, inflation will be more severe in low-achieving schools, including those serving disadvantaged students. In most systems, including NCLB, these schools have to make the most rapid gains, but they also face unusually serious barriers to doing so. And in some cases, the size of the gains they are required to make exceed by quite a margin what we know how to produce by legitimate means. This will increase the incentive to take short cuts, including those that will inflate scores. This would be ironic, given that one of the primary rationales for NCLB is to improve equity. Unfortunately, while we have a lot of anecdotal evidence suggesting that this is the case, we have very few serious empirical studies of this. We do have some, such as the RAND study that showed convincingly that the "Texas miracle" in the early 1990s, supposedly including a rapid narrowing of the achievement gap, was largely an illusion. Two of my students are currently working with me on a study of this in one large district, but we are months away from releasing a reviewed paper, and it is only one district.

I have argued for years that one of the most glaring faults of our current educational accountability systems is that we do not sufficiently evaluate their effects, instead trusting - evidence to the contrary - that any increase in scores is enough to let us declare success. We should be doing more evaluation not only because it is needed for the improvement of policy, but also because we have an ethical obligation to the children upon whom we are experimenting. Nowhere is this failure more important than in the case of disadvantaged students, who most need the help of education reform.
The willingness for policymakers to think critically about this question reflects their stake in the ed reform movement. 

Do we really want to improve and provide equitable and meaningful education for all students? Or do we just want to make it look like we've closed the achievement gap?  

Let's not accept shortcuts.