Race to the Top Assessment Program: Part 1 – Danger, Will Robinson, Irrational Discourse Ahead!

Anyone who has read my book or heard me speak about testing might think that I would be happy with the change in language evident in Obama’s Department of Education Executive Summary of the Race to the Top Assessment Program. Not only do we read as much about assessment as we read about assertions to measurement in the document, media outlets claim the initiative will reduce reliance on the often ridiculed multiple-choice test (as if that were the main problem with current policy).

Well, let’s examine the first paragraph of the Executive Summary (since that is how far I got before I had to say something before my brain exploded):

Authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 (ARRA), the Race to the Top Assessment Program provides funding to consortia of States to develop assessments that are valid, support and inform instruction, provide accurate information about what students know and can do, and measure student achievement against standards designed to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace. These assessments are intended to play a critical role in educational systems; provide administrators, educators, parents, and students with the data and information needed to continuously improve teaching and learning; and help meet the President’s goal of restoring, by 2020, the nation’s position as the world leader in college graduates.

Wow! If you’re not struck by the incompetence, read it again. OK, wow!

First, validity of these new assessments is presented as a criteria that is somehow separate from providing “accurate information about what students know and can do”. Would you consider it possible to have a valid assessment that cannot provide information about what students know and can do in some domain (assuming for a moment developing such assessments is a straightforward and problem-free endeavor)?

More troubling is this gem: “measure student achievement against standards designed to ensure that all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace.” Measurement is not the same as comparison. And the phrase “measure student achievement against” is inept and awkward. Of course one might counter that the sentence means to convey that college and career standards should be used to measure student achievement prior to college, or that these standards should be used to validate measures of achievement. But such re-renderings do little to help. By way of some spell developed by Voldemort, this measurement spiral will ensure “all students gain the knowledge and skills needed to succeed in college and the workplace”. Can standards ensure things like this?

Oh, it’s actually quite easy, like, when, uh, the standard measure of weight is used to ensure everyone loses weight! If only obese youth had access to more bathroom scales!

And wouldn’t it be great if schools prepared everyone for college and the workplace? That won’t be a challenge, because all colleges and degree programs are essentially the same, and we all work (those of us who have the will to get a job in this free market utopia) in “the workplace.” I think it is well established, using scientifically based methods, that all workplaces are essentially the same and require the same skills. The psychological literature is bursting with studies demonstrating how easily skills transfer from one domain to the next…that’s why CEOs have proven to be such effective educators.

And, I’m really happy that the Obama administration wants to provide parents with “data and information needed to continuously improve teaching”. Hell, since they, and many teachers, will be out of work, they might as well do something for their country…

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