Pork barrel arguments in the “accountability via test” debate

There is no question that there is valid concern with using standardized tests to measure teacher performance – the correlations are simply too low to use an end-of-year standardized test for high-stakes decision-making regarding teacher personnel. At the same time, the debate over “accountability via test” (as I’ll call it for short reference), likely because of its polarity, often includes a lot of collateral discussion with erroneous (at best) and dangerous (more often than not) implications for the direction of education.

Too often, for example, every modern reform is lumped together in one big group and becomes the subject of attack by those opposing any one of those reforms. Or, the subject line of a protest statement (e.g., “Accountability vs test” is bad) departs significantly from the actual content or rhetoric of the body of the argument. In other words, the main idea is disconnected from the supporting details.

As an example of both, take this recent Q&A article with a superintendent of a small Texas district.

Don’t get me wrong – I agree with most of what Kuhn has to say, at least in some form. However, several details/arguments are slipped in which, if left unchecked, could lead to “throwing the baby out with the bath water,” or – more specifically, abandoning some great innovations education has seen, all at the expense of opposing one specific reform.

Consider this statement, in response to “What’s not happening today because of a focus on standardized testing?”:

“In elementary school, strugglers lose art, recess, music, or PE. We tell at-risk students to stay in school; then we take away classes they most enjoy. When we reduced education to a competition, we condemned exploration and discovery and settled for rote proficiency.”

While this answer might sound agreeable at first, there are several arguments implicit in this answer which deserve to be addressed:

Implicit Statement 1
Because of standardized testing, kids no longer participate in art, recess, music, or PE.

My response
recent report by the NCES indicated arts instruction has not declined from the year 2000 to the year 2010. While this may not speak to Mr. Kuhn’s personal experience, and while it may be true that some kids may be pulled from arts for supplemental instruction, kids in the US – as a whole – do not seem to be losing arts instruction.

Implicit Statement 2
Presence of art, recess, music, and PE is a primary determinant of school engagement for struggling students.

My response
There is no debate that many struggling students most likely prefer non-academic time in school over academic time because they are struggling with academics. However, the response to that issue is not to preserve non-academic time because students like it, but to address the underlying causes that lead struggling students to prefer non-academic time in the first place. The root, underlying cause with struggling students preferring non-academic time is, simply, that they are struggling – they don’t like academics because they aren’t good enough at it. The answer, then, is not to provide struggling students with less academic time, but to fix the academic issue – namely, to provide more and better instruction. Simply put, if struggling students no longer struggle, then they will find the curriculum more engaging, and will more likely stay in school in coming years.

Implicit Statement 3
Constructivist educational paradigms are better than direct instruction (DI) or behavioral learning models. (“condemned exploration and discovery and settled for rote proficiency”)

My response
Both constructivism and DI/behavioral learning have their places in the classroom, with “rote proficiency” being no less valuable (and often more valuable) in some academic areas than “exploration and discovery.” Take reading fluency – there’s no evidence that “exploration and discovery” are critical ingredients to developing reading fluency. The goal, rather, is rote proficiency.

Implicit Statement 4
Standardized tests dictate a particular instructional paradigm and specific instructional methods. (“condemned exploration and discovery and settled for rote proficiency” and earlier in the Q&A, “Principals face the temptation to enforce scripted approaches”)

My response
Assessment measures do not dictate instructional approaches. Perhaps, out of fear, district administrators such as Mr. Kuhn do, but the use of standardized tests do not. Moreover, standardized tests do not simply measure basic skills if designed correctly, but can (and usually do) assess “higher level thinking skills” such as synthesis and transfer of learning. As such, there is still an incentive in place to use instructional practices which promote deeper learning and higher level thinking skills.

Implicit Statement 5
Scripted programs have come about because of accountability.

My response
Scripted programs have come about because they work better for the things they’re used for. Scripted programs usually refer to direct instruction programs in which children are taught skills explicitly and systematically, and are generally used in lower grade levels to build proficiency with basic skills such as decoding and reading fluency. Decades of research has demonstrated the vast superiority of direct instruction programs in building basic reading and math skills, which are foundational to higher level thinking skills and “deeper” learning. As a result of the National Reading Panel, Reading First, Response to Intervention, and an overall movement toward evidence-based practice in reading/math instruction, direct instruction has become increasingly adopted as the instructional mode of choice for basic skill proficiency in many elementary general education and special education classrooms. In short, scripted/direct instruction programs have been implemented because they are best practice. If accountability encouraged or even coerced administrators to use best practices, then the general idea of accountability has proven successful in that area.

Implicit Statement 6
Rote proficiency is bad, and a focus on basic skills is replacing a focus on higher level thinking skills and deeper learning.

My response
HIgher level thinking skills and deeper learning are built on a foundation of basic skill proficiency. While it may be true that lower-income schools focus more on basic skills than higher-income schools, that’s likely because there is typically a lower degree of proficiency with basic skills in lower-income schools. There isn’t a shred of evidence in the research world suggesting that we should avoid teaching basic, foundational skills such as decoding and addition and skip right to higher-level thinking skills which require fluency with basic skills. How, for example, would you suggest a child critically analyze literary function of a text if he can’t read it?


More broadly, my goal with this post is not to win debates in each of the six areas I addressed, but to highlight that often, hidden within the context of the “anti-accountability via test”argument, are many other latent arguments which are not necessarily “givens.” It is not necessarily a given that arts instruction is being lost, that arts instruction is the primary method of school engagement for struggling kids, that constructivism is better than direct instruction, that standardized tests prohibit the use of effective teaching modalities, that scripted programs have come about because of accountability, or that basic skills instruction is bad. Yet, the temptation is for readers – educators and the general public – to read this commentary and, because they side with the overall conclusion that “accountability via test” is bad, believe that everything else in the commentary must be right.

Like pork barrel legislation in Congress, many folks commenting on the “accountability via test” debate attempt to slip in a number of other arguments which may be either unrelated or simply wrong, hoping that the validity of their overall thesis will carry the weight of the lesser arguments, or otherwise have failed to see that being right in one area does not make you right in all other areas – that evidence supporting one claim cannot be used to support all others.


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