Testing, accountability, and a libertarian calling for more state control

Tyler Cowen (an amazing Econ. and general interest blogger at Marginal Revolution) wrote an op-ed for the New York Times yesterday which touched briefly on education. Here’s the relevant excerpt:

Politics based on lobbying stacks the deck against lower-income groups, who are often outmaneuvered. For instance, one of the biggest problems faced by the poor today is inadequate K-12 education. They need improved public schools, more school choice, or some mix of both. Over time, such improvements would help deal with many other social and economic issues, including global competitiveness, domestic unemployment, public health and the budget deficit, because quality education has many beneficial effects.

Instead, the current system of transfers offers to the poor various sops in place of more effective reforms. Fundamental improvements to education would involve more challenging changes to residential zoning, teacher unions and certification systems, and might also take some educational finance and control out of the hands of local municipalities. It is no surprise that well-off families want to keep a system that has done very well by them, and that the poor often lose political battles over education.

The general point of the column is the growing power interest groups have over politics and how they use that power as “takers” rather than “makers”. The end result of this lobbying is policies which hurt the poor. I think it’s telling that Cowen leaves out some of the biggest interest groups – banks, agriculture, pharmaceuticals, defense contractors – and choses to harp on teachers, homeowners, and “government oriented professionals.” What strikes me most, however, is his solution: more centralized control. Looking at the excerpt above, Cowen calls for “Fundamental improvements to education would involve more challenging changes to residential zoning, teachers unions and certification systems, and might also take some educational finance and control out of the hands of local municipalities.”

Central control vs. local control of school districts is a battle that’s been raging for decades. What’s unique about the modern incarnation of this fight is the bipartisan consensus about what makes good education policy. I’ve written about the accountability push before here and here. Libertarians like Cowen, Republicans, Democrats, and everyone in between (except pretty much all teachers) believe that standardized testing, teacher accountability, and increasing central control are the best way to fix schooling. Here in Georgia there’s a big ballot measure in November about whether or not local school systems have the right to grant charter schools their charter. The state contends that it should have the authority to open charter school without going before a local board. The local boards want oversight because the local schools systems, not the state, have to pay for charter schools. It is, principally, a debate about centralizing control over school system budgets and school accountability.

Because of Race to the Top, Obama’s big education push which granted money to states that implemented various reforms (merit pay, increased testing, reformed teacher evaluation), Georgia is rolling out new annual subject area tests in all the core content areas. These tests are designed to determine the value added by each teacher a student has over the course of her education. If Susie is learning comparably to her peers up until 5th grade and then she suddenly sees her math and science scores drop in 6th grade, these tests will show that her 6th grade math and science teachers aren’t “adding value” to her education. If this trend continues across multiple students and through multiple years, that teacher will be removed.

Sounds good in principle but the real problem is in the testing. The most significant problem I find in our standardized testing regime is test validity. Validity is the measure of whether or not a test actually assesses the material it is intended to assess. Validity can be broken down into three types:

  1. Construct Validity: Does the test produce a result in accord with an established theory? This type of validity is more important in scientific and psychological testing than education but basically it means that a test should be designed to tell if something is or is not true. In education, this would mean designing tests which assess learning rather than some other factor, like, athletic ability or something.
  2. Content Validity: Does the content of the test measure what it is supposed to measure? I find this to be the weakest link because there are too many variables involved. Remember, standardized tests aren’t being implemented to test students. They are being implemented to test teachers.
  3. Criterion Validity: Does a test match up to other known measurements of the same characteristics?

Content validity is pretty weak right now because the content of the tests is based on the students’ knowledge of a subject but the goal being measured is teacher effectiveness. That’s why these tests are do disdained by teachers. We don’t want to be held accountable for every kid’s learning because we don’t think we have enough of control over every kid’s learning. I teach students with varying types of disabilities. Many of them can’t read past a 3rd grade level. Why should I be accountable for their test scores on a 9th grade Literature (or Biology, which I also taught last year) exam? For whatever reason, every single kid in every school, with every educational background, and regardless of disability must take the same test. Does it matter if scary Tony is back in prison or that Jose only comes to school two days a week? Teachers think it should. Teacher accountability advocates think it should not.

I get very confused when I think about educational policy because of things like this. Why the ham-fisted approach to accountability? Why doesn’t anyone consider obvious problems with pretending that every kid is identical? With constantly touting the need to refocus education on a career path but refusing to give school credit for kids who graduate with vocational training instead of college prep? With claiming that we need more school choice and curricular freedom while simultaneously calling for nationalizing school standards and centralizing control?

I guess I still don’t know sh*t about education.