Saturday, October 29, 2011

High Stakes Testing

This line in a recent EdWeek piece about grants caught my eye:

"...awarding bigger grants in return for greater evidence of program effectiveness..."

Every institutional arrangement (in this case, the program development that is stimulated by grant money availability) creates both opportunity and constraint, as well as both intended an unintended consequences.

It shouldn't take a PhD in organizational leadership to know that if we incentivize people with the promise of big grant money for big results, they will try to create programs that show big results.  And unless we are completely sure that the big results on the standardized test correlate well with what we really want to accomplish in the education process, some of those programs created in response to the grant money incentive will simply be for the sake of showing results in order to get the money.

Oh, I don't mean people will intentionally be quite so instrumental (though some will).  More, I mean that such an arrangement creates a culture and climate that subtly encourages people to focus on test scores so emphatically as to make them a kind of shibboleth.

After all, the stakes are quite high...for the adults.  It means jobs and prestige and so on.  For the students, though, the stakes are actually quite low.  In Washington state, at least, the state test really has very little impact on a child's educational route until the 10th grade round.  A student must pass the 10th grade test in order to graduate.  They can have several tries at it, and if they don't succeed, there's an alternate route to the same goal--at least there was, or has been, or is talked about it.  We've been changing our test every other week, it seems.

So, every institutional arrangement creates a set of expectations, guidelines and parameters that people have to work with and in.  Clearly, the direct intention of the high payoff for high performance is to stimulate achievement of students in school.  But every institutional arrangement generates more than we intend.  When those who are being so incentivized figure out just what measures of "high performance" are going to be rewarded, they will target their programs at that.  And in the nature of the case they will target other things less emphatically.

We are assuming, in other words, that the grant money for performance actually translates down to outcomes that we actually want students to have.  Since students are not a group of monoliths with monolithic goals, hopes, aspirations and needs, we should understand that no institutional arrangement will meet every goal we value.  That's been true since the first relationship was entered into.  Not so sure that throwing big money around helps this.

To be specific, see here and there and everywhere.

Oh, if we really want students to pass tests, why not transfer all this financial incentive to them?  You think students wouldn't have a little more enthusiasm for the test if there were a monetary payoff involved?  Just asking...

Oh, and don't get me started on how the article uses the word "innovation."  Talk about shibboleths!

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