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October 24, 2010


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Thanks for posting this--I am very interested in this debate, and I was unaware that the symposium had happened. I will look out for the upcoming issue. I agree that the central issues in this debate are really issues about the large inequalities in funding among American school districts. However, there are interesting questions related to test-based accountability even assuming these inequalities. Not having read the primary article, I feel a little at a loss, but I have a couple of reactions to the post above.

I understand that one of Professor Silbaugh's points (as paraphrased above) is that lower-income school districts are harmed more by the crowding out of non-testable subjects from the curriculum. However, it is also true that most affluent school systems are succumbing to the pressure to spend much of their time (at least in the Spring) teaching to the test. In affluent school systems, this is likely because scores have essentially topped out at a point where further "progress" is nearly impossible. "Adequate yearly progress" is not a student-based metric, which might measure the learning gains a student may have accomplished in a given year--that would require two tests in a year. Rather, it is a school-based measure of the percentage of students in each disaggregated group who achieve a certain score level on the state test each year. There are several affluent school districts in each state where the achievement levels have been nearly 100% for years (especially in certain elementary schools), and at times, schools in these districts have been considered "failing" on the NCLB scale (even while being graded as "A" schools in the relevant state's accountability system) for failing to increase their passage rates. This, I think, creates a pathological obsession with aggregate score increases in affluent districts similar to that which we see in lower-income school districts.

Your point that "Silbaugh’s argument that scarce time and resources are being spent on Subject A, rather than on Subject B, proves nothing in the absence of evidence that – given the necessity of choice – students would be better off learning B instead of A," may address an either-or dichotomy presented in Silbaugh's paper, but this choice has never been central to the critiques of standardized testing-based accountability from the education scholars. Instead of thinking of the choice as "either teach A or B," which I think would, as you argue, require an empirical determination of the relative values of A and B to the student and society, it is better to think of the choice as one between "teaching only A, or teaching both A and B," which is a characterization more faithful to the change that happened as a result of the testing-based accountability movement. If both A and B are valuable, but only A is subject to easy and inexpensive measurement, then A crowds B out of the curriculum. For this phenomenon to be undesirable it is not necessary for B to be more valuable than A, or even for B to be as valuable as A. It suffices to say that both A and B have value to a student's education, and the value of music, critical thinking, and art (the "B" in your post) to a student's overall education has been established quite convincingly in the psychological literature. The more interesting question, I think, is whether it is better to teach only A, but teach it measurably effectively, than to teach both A and B and not know empirically whether either is being taught effectively. This latter question suggests its own answer, but only because a third option--teaching both A and B and measuring the effectiveness of all such teaching--would be a much, much more expensive approach, requiring individual evaluations of individual educators or students (e.g., portfolio assessment), rather than the mass bubbling of scan-tron forms.

Kim Krawiec

Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Scott. The symposium was on "For Love or Money: Defining Relationships in Law and Life," and this was the only paper relating to education, so that may be why you missed it. Kate does discuss problems of flattening and teaching to the test in wealthier districts as well, but I don't recall a discussion of the specific point you raise -- that some affluent school districts with achievement levels of nearly 100% have been considered "failing" on the NCLB scale for failing to increase their passage rates. I, of course, wouldn't deny that this is a problem, but would simply contend that it has nothing to do with commodification per se, and instead is an implementation failure.

On the second point, I like your reframing of the question as “whether it is better to teach only A, but teach it measurably effectively, than to teach both A and B and not know empirically whether either is being taught effectively.” I may use that in the paper – I always hope that these blog discussions will generate comments that I can use in some way.

However, I don’t know that the question can so easily be reframed as “it is better to think of the choice as one between ‘teaching only A, or teaching both A and B.’” This seems to me to assume more than is in evidence (or, at least, of the evidence I’ve seen). I'm sure that we could all agree that it would be best if students learned both A and B. But teaching both A and B effectively (leaving aside for the moment questions of whether we can measure that effectiveness) appears to be something that many schools cannot do – both before and after standardized testing. Presumably there are many schools (indeed, many students) that must choose where to focus their energies and they are necessarily making trade-offs on a daily basis. The advent of the standardized testing movement means that they have chosen to focus their energies on one subset of knowledge. It seems to me that this particular critique thus needs to demonstrate that a focus on that subset of knowledge is inferior to the pre-testing status quo or, in the alternative, demonstrate that all schools have sufficient resources to effectively teach all subjects we might consider valuable to students’ education.

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