The risk of testing

In our zeal for accountability, we’re Assessing Ourselves To Death, writes Matthew Di Carlo in a characteristically thoughtful post on Shanker Blog.

To start with, “educational outcomes, such as graduation and test scores, are signals of or proxies for the traits that lead to success in life, not the cause of that success,” he writes. Pumping up graduation rates won’t improve students’ prospects — or the economy — unless they’ve actually learned the academic and non-cognitive skills employers associate with a high school diploma.

Our relentless focus on test scores has risks, Di Carlo writes. Test-based accountability “has a useful role to play, both for measuring performance and for incentivizing improvement (and, of course, the use of testing data for research purposes is critical),” but “we need to stop putting more and more faith in instruments that are not really designed to bear that burden.”

If we mold policy such that livelihoods depend on increasing scores, and we select and deselect people and institutions based on their ability to do so, then, over time, scores will most likely go up.

The question is what that will mean. A portion of this increase will reflect a concurrent improvement in useful skills and knowledge. But part of it will not (e.g., various forms of score inflation). To the degree the latter is the case, not only will it not help the students, but we will have more and more trouble knowing where we stand. Researchers will be less able to evaluate policies. We’ll end up celebrating and making decisions based on success that isn’t really success, and that’s worse than outright failure.

We need to balance “the power of measurement and incentives against the risks,” Di Carlo concludes.