Sunday, June 8, 2008

Two Accounts Concerning International Test Comparisons: Same Lesson

Pick a politician - left, right, or in between. When it comes to public education, you can bet dollars to donuts you'll hear them sounding the alarm that our ability to compete in the 21st Century Global Economy is in peril as evidenced by international test comparisons.

Here educational consultant Keith Baker observes that decades after the first international test was administered in 1964, it is possible to actually test the long held assumption that "our low test scores will adversely affect our ability to compete economically on the world stage."
The fact is that the higher a nation's test scores are, the worse that nation performs in the economic world. The most successful nations are low scorers.

Altogether, I found 61 measures on which to compare the economic performance of the USA in 2003 to the nations that had higher scores in 1964. If the theory that low scores lead to economic failure is correct, all, or at least most, of these comparisons would favor the higher scoring nation. Not so. The USA comes out on top in 74% of the comparisons, beyond question the premier economic competitor in the world.

Since the false assumption that high test scores are good for the economy has been behind educational reform for decades of efforts to raise test scores, we must now worry about having gone in the wrong direction.

It is wise counsel to 'never assume a conspiracy when stupidity will suffice', but I have seen some impressive arguments that conservatives are engaged in vast right wing conspiracy - vouchers, home schooling, restrictive funding, layman control- to destroy the public schools. Note that the raising test score craze, including its main program, NCLB, support that conspiracy theory.

Fellow contrarian Gerald Bracey of EDDRA (Education Disinformation Detection and Reporting Agency) disagrees with Baker, not about the harmful obsession with standardized testing, not about the canard that our economic competitiveness is tightly linked to how well students score on standardized tests, but because Baker "assumes that, in fact, there IS a relationship between test scores and economic security."
I think it's more due to the 12 pillars of competitiveness as listed by the World Economic Forum in its annual Global Economic Competitiveness report 2007-2008 (we're #1, have been for quite a while, and because of the 25 or so personal qualities that tests don't measure that I provide in Reading Educational Research: How to Avoid Getting Statistically Snookered. Especially creativity, which, as Bob Sternberg keeps pointing out, is a victim of our obsession with testing.
Whether one agrees with Baker or Bracey (or some combination of their views), the lesson to be learned is the same. False assumptions have driven educational reform for decades.

I think it's important that a critical distinction be made between the appropriate and limited use of standardizes tests and their overuse and misuse. Place too much credence in them and you lose any benefit that might otherwise have been gained from them. Attach life-altering consequences to them and they're positively destructive. I think schools could live without standardized tests completely and suffer no harm.

Yet it is their misuse that is wreaking havoc and destruction in our public schools. I like to use a medical model to drive the point home. When a doctor prescribes a drug for a patient, it can help if used as the physician directs. But if the drug is abused, it can be destructive, even deadly.

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