Our Information Stinks

As a guest writer in the Post’s Answer Sheet blog points out, a good deal of the debate over education reform in the past two decades has centered around two concepts: choice and accountability.

Choice, of course, usually comes back to charter schools and vouchers, and accountability may as well be a synonym for standardized test since almost no other ideas of what it means to assess student learning seems to be considered.

Neither has done much to improve American education and probably have done a great deal of harm by narrowing the discussion of what public schools are and should be. But why have choice and accountability not lived up to their claimed potential?

Critics have a whole host of explanations, some of which are quite compelling, and some of which are burdened by political agendas. But the simplest answer, which also happens to be true, is that both movements are dependent on good information about school quality. And, frankly, our information stinks.

Both of these models, of course, are dependent on accurate information about school quality.  Whether parents have the power or accountability officers do, the central assumption is the same: that we can measure school quality precisely enough to make high-stakes decisions.

As the writer correctly points out “standardized test scores provide a very narrow picture of what happens inside schools”. As for charter schools and most private schools, they aren’t doing much if anything different from the public schools. They are working with a selected group of students whose parents are very motivated.

He concludes with a list of five criteria for rating schools that, while certainly not perfect, would be a much better alternative to test scores.

I especially love number one, how much time do students spend on art, music and other creative activities?, and number 5, which asks how well did the education they received help students five to ten years later.

However, back here in our real world, this is the unfortunate bottom line of our current education policy in this country.

Test scores, as many parents and policymakers already know, are misleading.  But they aren’t going away.  They aren’t going away in state or federal decision-making.  And they aren’t going away in the role they play in parental decisions about school choice.  In fact, the opposite is happening: test scores are insidiously taking hold in policy discourse and among the public as a perfectly acceptable measure of quality.  They aren’t.  And, as such, it is our job not only to resist narrow and simplistic measures of educational quality, but to demand access to the data we really need—information that allows us to make thoughtful decisions about our schools.

Thoughtful decisions about our schools. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

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