Monday, February 23, 2015

Students As Vending Machines

One of the most pernicious yet subtle side effects of test-driven accountability is that it flips the mission of a school on its head.

The proper view of a school is that it exists to serve the students, to help them become the people they can best be, to become better wiser citizens and members of the community. A school's mission is to help with that process.

But under a regime of high stakes testing, that mission is thrown out. The school's mission is to Get Good Numbers out of the students. The institution is no longer there to meet the needs of the students-- the students are there to meet the needs of the institution. The students are there to produce the numbers that the school needs to produce.

Proponents of test-driven accountability will say that there's no problem. The drive to get good test scores out of students will motivate schools to meet the student's needs. This kind of reasoning would also suggest that there's no difference between a person who is your friend because he likes you and a person who is your friend because he wants to get money from you. If you cannot tell the difference between those two relationships, I would rather not be your friend.

In the upside-down world of high stakes testing, schools only need to care about student needs that might affect test scores. They need only give the students what will get the school what it wants-- a good score on a bad test of a narrow sliver of skills.

In the world of test-driven accountability, students are simply vending machines. Put in the correct change. Kick and shake the machine a little if the candy won't fall all the way to the bottom.

If you haven't witnessed this, it's hard to imagine how pervasive the effect can become. Let's assign students to teachers based not on who would be a good fit, but who might get the best scores out of the kid. Let's structure the day, the curriculum, the organization of grades within the district strictly on what will generate the best numbers.

What the students want or need from us doesn't matter. What matters is what we want from them-- good numbers. They are no longer customers or clients; they are employees. Meeting their needs is no longer our goal; their needs are now an obstacle in the path of our goal, which is to get good numbers.

There's no question that not all schools have always embodied my high ideals for schools. But there's no question that test-driven accountability moves us further from that ideal, not closer.


  1. Yeah, but usually with a vending machine you have to put in a dollar or so to get your product out. The "accountability" folks don't seem to be willing to put in that dollar, so they're working on mastering the best technique for beating on the vending machine to make the product come out.

  2. Have you ever read James Herndon's _How to Survive in Your Native Land_? In that book, he defines institutions as "places to do things where those things will not be done." Forty+ years after publication, he's still spot on.

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