I hate standardized tests.

18 12 2009

Mark Kleiman (via Megan McCardle) reminds me that it’s almost time to undo one of the stupidest acts of the Bush Administration:

One of the striking features about NCLB is the primitive evaluation mechanism it employs. It’s pure defect-finding: measuring the percentages of kids of different types who fail to achieve some standard, as measured by standardized tests. Henry Ford would recognize it. W. Edwards Deming would be appalled by it.

Statistical quality assurance depends on sampling, not census inspection; on paying attention to the entire range of outcomes, not just whether a given outcome meets or fails to meet some standard; and on process. And it is continuous and interactive rather than purely retrospective. In Deming’s world, the purpose of quality assurance is to feed back information about processes and their outcomes to operators so the processes can be changed in real time.

One of the reason Honda and Toyota ate General Motors’s lunch is that the Japanese car companies adopted statistical quality assurance while Detroit was still inspecting every part coming off the assembly line to see whether it was within tolerance. Why are we using those same outdated principles to manage the much more complicated problem of teaching children to read, write, and reckon?

We test every student so that we can pin the failure rates of students on their teachers or their schools. Sample “students for high-quality, expensive testing” as we do with the National Assessment of Educational Progress tests and blaming teachers becomes impossible. Not only would that destroy whatever Republican support there was for the bill the first time around, it would give those students who take the test even less incentive to do their best on the test because they know it won’t affect two things (schools and individual teachers) about which they presumably care.

Seeing Kleiman’s faith in management principles of any kind in school systems suggests to me that he doesn’t understand the first thing that any thoughtful classroom teacher will tell you if you ask: Learning is not a commodity. You can’t price it, you can’t sell it, you can’t transfer it and, most of all, you can’t measure it objectively. Period.

I was listening to someone from the Department of Ed last week in DC say that the Department believes it has two functions: Shining a light on good educational practices and giving away money. That gave me hope for the future as the best thing to do to improve education in this country is to attract higher-quality teachers by paying them more money and then keeping the government of the way.

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