Better Test Scores Lead to Better Lives and Strong Economy: Fact or Hunch?

It is rare that a pundit (and ardent reformer) lays out clearly and crisply the core assumption driving the past thirty years of school reform. It is not only rare but startling when that insider then questions the assumption, suggesting that it is a hunch, not a fact.  That is what Mike Petrilli does in his recent posting, “The Test Score Hypothesis.”

He says:

The entire school reform movement is predicated on a hypothesis: boosting student achievement, as measured by standardized tests, will enable greater prosperity, both for individuals and for the country as a whole. More specifically, improving students’ reading, math, and science knowledge and skills will help poor children climb out of poverty, and will help all children prepare for the rigors of college and the workplace. And by building the “human capital” of the American workforce, rising achievement will spur economic growth which will lift all boats.

You do not get more crisp language about what has driven test-driven accountability reforms of the past 30 years than that. Petrilli then asks:

But is this hypothesis correct? Is stronger academic performance related to better life outcomes for kids and better economic outcomes for nations?

He then cites researchers who lay out the evidence of national and international test scores that are highly correlated (note that word) with economic growth and individual lifetime earnings. He accepts that standardized test scores count for something but then asks a question that only policymakers whisper in the dead of night:

So student achievement matters a lot. But does it matter the most?

His answer?

We might all want schools …  to boost “academic achievement” while also developing “moral, cultured, socially-responsible people.” But our policies — especially school-level accountability and test-based teacher evaluations–focus on academic achievement alone.

He elaborates even further and asks:

The nagging question then … is whether other stuff matters more — both to kids’ life chances and to the country’s economic success. What if, for instance, “social and emotional intelligence” — knowing how to relate to others — is more important than many reformers have been willing to acknowledge? What if these interpersonal skills are what help lift poor kids out of poverty and enable economies to succeed? Or other “soft skills” and attributes like grit, perseverance, industriousness, the ability to delay gratification, and so forth?

Then comes the comparison that entrepreneurial reformers, many of whom were educated in private schools and who preach tough love for public schools, might wince at:

The private school sector … is not so conflicted. Every high-end school boasts about its commitment to the “whole child,” to kids’ intellectual, emotional, social, and physical development. These schools would never consider their graduates to be well-educated without an appreciation for the arts, participation in sports, a commitment to community service, and the development of strong character….  Are these non-academic attributes just “extras” — luxuries that schools serving poor or working class kids just can’t afford? Or are they as essential as academics, for everyone?

The answer Petrilli offers comes as a reform insider–note the “we” and “us” in the following quote–who supports charters, performance pay, and the current reform menu of test-based accountability.

Reading, math, and science matter a lot, but they are almost certainly not enough. That is why we must tread carefully when designing next-generation school accountability and teacher evaluation systems. If we accidentally create incentives for schools and teachers to focus solely on academic achievement and ignore the rest, we could be making our children and our nation less competitive, not more so. Let us proceed with care.

To say “tread carefully” and “proceed with care” after three decades of steel-toed boots stomping of public schools, not to mention, the transfer of an audit culture soaked in high tech from the corporate sector to national educational policy is, well, almost funny. It is, at the least,  a disappointing end to  such a clear laying out of the assumptions embedded in the reigning “tough love” reform ideology in which Mike Petrilli has been a card-carrying member.

The fact is that the arts, humanities, the entire civic mission of schools have been downsized and outsourced to families, churches, and donors. Even before the recent budget cuts, test-driven accountability had narrowed the school curriculum, particularly in urban districts, reallocated time away from music, art, drama, literature, and social studies to math and language arts. Non-profit organizations, often funded by donors, have stepped in to provide arts–think of the Chicago Children’s Choir and civic engagement–think of the recent Civic Mission of Schools report.

Yes, Common Core Standards and test-based accountability are, like all school reform-driven policies, hunches not facts. Far more humility and full disclosure, however, on the part of self-confident reformers that the policies they push are really being alpha-tested on children and teachers for defects would be a victory for truth.


Filed under school reform policies

14 responses to “Better Test Scores Lead to Better Lives and Strong Economy: Fact or Hunch?

  1. Jessica Hahn

    Wonderful post! I have been teaching in high poverty schools for 6 years in Phoenix and New York City and begun some doctoral work in which we looked closely at assumptions and values behind policies and current educational beliefs. And what has always struck me is what you (and Mike P.) have captured in this post: that assumptions and hunches are not exclusively what is “right.”

    And yet there is rarely public conversation that I see about changing our assumptions and the actions we therefore take. Any conversation around questioning testing gets bogged down in shouts of “inequality” and “lowering standards and expectations” and “failing students.”
    When will educators, policy makers, and the public honestly discuss the nuance and complexity of educating children?

    • larrycuban

      In answer to your direct question, Jessica, I do not know when people will discuss “the nuance and complexity of educating children” but each of us has to keep pushing until they do. Thanks for comment.

  2. The current reform narrative has been powerful because it has resonance both with business leaders and the general public, grounded as it is in deeply held beliefs, such as individualism, extrinsic motivation and market driven solutions. The counter narratives though numerous have been largely defensive, e.g., merit pay is ineffective and test scores lack the precision needed to measure individual teacher effectiveness. We need a resonant improvement narrative with intuitive appeal. In brief, I’d offer a few:

    1) Teachers, like any other professionals, will be most effective when they are treated with the respect that leads to job satisfaction and professional responsibility.
    2) For students to benefit from common high expectations and effective teaching, they need to be ready to learn. In and of themselves, high expectations and effective teaching are only a partial solution. Substantial support systems must be in place and readily accessible to offset the limitations imposed on children by their family’s poverty and unemployment.
    3) For students to be successful in life, career and citizenship, we need to prepare them for a world they—and we—cannot totally visualize. To point them in the right direction, we must first insist upon a broad curriculum and instruction that emphasize creative, divergent and critical thinking; problem solving; flexibility; communication; collaboration; and a strong work ethic. These are the skills required for success.
    4) We may have forgotten Avogadro’s number or the novels we read in senior English, but we recall with utmost clarity the teacher who gave us a special bit of attention or the classmate who humiliated us. Therefore, attention to conditions that enable learning, especially effort-based ability, is as essential as excellent teaching and challenging curriculum.
    5) If innovation is a prerequisite for progress, we need to develop leaders who create organizational structures that don’t just reward success, but rather prioritize learning from failure. Then, we need to give teachers and leaders time to try out and then refine innovations in practice.

    Gaps in achievement related to race and class are persistent and unresponsive to simple solutions precisely because the causes are so complex. We need to give up the “magic bullet” idea and recognize that only the synergy of multiple strategies enacted thoroughly over time will produce systemic and sustainable outcomes. We need to avoid measures and consequences that make people risk-averse, squelching the very creativity that is essential to make progress.
    Arthur Camins
    Center for Innovation in Engineering and Science Education
    Stevens Institute of Technology

    • larrycuban

      Arthur, thanks for the comment and counter-narrative, one that has “intuitive appeal.” The political attractiveness of current reform talk and action you nail down completely. What I do not see, however, is how the propositions you set out have political appeal across sectors of the general population beyond sympathetic academics, teacher-educators, unions, individual teachers, and cadres of parents who support teachers. While there is some movement among donors and policymakers about re-engaging schools in their central civic mission, far more political support is needed. Too often critics and defenders of teachers and schools forget that education is a political enterprise first and foremost.

  3. Steve Davis

    Evaluating teachers, and schools strictly in terms of their success in transferring specific academic skills and content to students is shortsighted. Here’s a scenario to illustrate my point. Johnny is a senior in my English class with an Individualized Education Plan (IEP). This D+ student reached the pinnacle of learning in my classroom, but you wouldn’t know it by his grades or his test scores. He has verbal and auditory processing problems which make academic reading and writing a struggle. Based on his writing samples, it’s safe to say that I probably didn’t help him improve his writing much this year. But I gave him something that most people would consider “good teaching.” I gave him a supportive intellectual environment with many opportunities to interact with different types of information. Before he left my classroom, Johnny knew how to tie a tie (half-windsor knot) and he taught a classmate as a class demonstration during the morning’s “cultural literacy” drill. I didn’t really teach him how to tie a tie, but I did provide him with the context and the opportunity. He taught himself. Johnny still has trouble with academic tasks. Not because he’s not smart, but because he has difficulty accessing content and producing a written product. I doubt I helped Johnny increase his score on a writing rubric or his percentile rank on a multiple choice, but odds are that he “learned” more in my class than he has in most of his others. He achieved mastery of a skill that many adults don’t possess and surely he must have gained some satisfaction and self efficacy as a result. Johnny recently checked out of my class to head to a continuation school. As I shook his hand and gave him a pat on the back, I was sure that I had been successful with him, although the data gods might declare that I failed him. The gods must be blind.

    • larrycuban

      As always, Steve, your examples drawn from the classroom help underscore the complexity of teaching and evaluating the broad range of what teachers do in classrooms where the diversity of abilities, performance, interests, and motivation is a fundamental fact. Thank you.

      Another thought you triggered. Johnny picked up knowledge and skills in your classroom in the ways you structured a “supportive intellectual environment with many opportunities to interact with different types of information.” In that environment, Johnny also learned a great deal from peers–sorting out the collateral learning from you and peers from the academic knowledge and skills is unnecessary for Johnny since he profits from both. But these different sources and outcomes of learning go uncaptured by those who bet everything upon testing to measure particular results.

  4. Sean

    Great post. The best evidence on the test score-wage link (Hanushek, Murnane, Blackburn, etc.) is pre-NCLB. I wonder if the onslaught of high-stakes testing (and its accompanying score inflation) will weaken the claim.

  5. Jack Schneider

    It seems to me that we are at the beginning stages of a shift in narrative among many reformers. Advocates for many less-than-impressive reforms are re-positioning themselves — to maintain credibility, to shore up a sense of righteousness, to remain relevant. No doubt failed reforms will make Diane Ravitches of them all…

    • larrycuban

      I have found it hard to see whether a reform is at the beginning or end of its arc. You might be right, Jack, but I have my doubts since the prevailing political tailwinds are still blowing strongly for Common Core Standards, charters, NCLB, pay for performance and other Bush/Obama educational initiatives. And will be for the next four years–I believe but, do not predict.

  6. Pingback: Better Test Scores Lead to Better Lives and Strong Economy: Fact or Hunch? | Progressive, Innovative Approaches to Education |

  7. Pingback: Better Test Scores Lead to Better Lives and Strong Economy: Fact or Hunch? | 21st Century skills of critical and creative thinking |

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