Thursday, February 28, 2013
Is there anything we shouldn’t do to raise test scores?
I just engaged in a lengthy (and ongoing) Twitter exchange with the director of our state’s Department of Education, Jason Glass. Earlier this week, the Department held up as exemplary a school district that cut recess time to raise literacy scores. (Teachers and students “weren’t happy with some of the things we had to drop, such as morning recess time because we really don’t need that,” one principal said.) Many people chimed in to point out that there’s no reason to think that cuts in recess help kids learn. What I wanted to know was how the department could be sure that the test score increases represented meaningful education, as opposed to just test prep. If there is a difference between the two, and Glass agreed that there is, then the test scores themselves can’t help you distinguish one from the other. So I asked what Glass’s criteria are.
You can be the judge of whether the discussion is going anywhere. But it seems clear that Glass must have a different definition of test prep than I have. Mine would be: single-mindedly pursuing higher test scores at the expense of other values that are cumulatively more important. One such value is providing a humane school experience. Another is preserving a child’s enjoyment of learning. Another is not teaching authoritarian values. Another is giving enough attention to subjects that aren’t tested or don’t lend themselves to testing.
I suspect his definition would focus more on whether the test score increases reflected a meaningful improvement in the particular quality they purport to measure. That would be a defensible definition, but it doesn’t excuse him from asking what has been sacrificed for the sake of that improvement. How does the DOE measure those sacrifices? I don’t think it does. If it did, how would it determine what sacrifices are “worth it”? Though Glass keeps referring to evidence-based practices, the latter question cannot be answered empirically, because it entails value judgments.
How does the DOE make those judgments? In what meaningful sense are they informed by the values of the families they affect?