Monday, August 18, 2014

Accountability in the Age of the High Stakes Test

We've marched steadily toward accountability for over a decade now. Teachers must be held accountable. Schools must be held accountable.

And not just in some fuzzy, non-specific manner. This accountability must come with real, hard consequences, say reformsters. Accountability means real consequences, financial consequences. If teachers aren't doing a great job, they should not get paid more. If they do a lousy job, they should be subject to losing their jobs. If schools fail to provide excellence, we should be able to close them, replace them with new schools that will promise to do better.

Because, you know, that's how things work in the business world.

Unless, of course, you're a educational testing corporation.

News has broken of the latest Pearson testing mistake, and this one in particular gives us a picture of corporate accountability in this new age. The mistake itself is the result of an actually-understandable screw-up. A civics and economics test in Virginia included a question for which the answer changed between the writing and the scoring (can VA residents register to vote online). The answer key was incorrect, and many students who should have passed were marked as failing.

Virginia and Pearson were both quick to explain the problem. Pearson is just a contractor, and they just do what they're told.

This is an interesting position to take in our new accountariffic education world of today. I am wondering if it would work for low-rated teachers in NY. Can they say, "Hey, I delivered the engageNY lessons exactly as they are laid out on the website. I followed the instructions to the letter-- if the students scored poorly on The Test, that is not on me."

We're just the contractor. We were just following orders. These do not sound like slogans for the Age of Accountability to me.

This event in VA is of course not just a one-off. Tales of Pearson's screw-ups are legion (here's one list). In one case they offered $600K of "scholarship money," which is an amount I imagine they have rattling around a receptionist's desk in loose change. Sometimes they have to pay a fine, though you generally have to take them to court to get that to work. Mostly life just goes on.

Look, Pearson is a huge corporation. I expect they're going to make mistakes, and I personally accept mistakes as part of the cost of being in the world. But if our new philosophy is that failure is not an option, and that teachers and schools need to be beaten into shape with the big stick of accountability, then let's wave that stick at everybody.

If accountability is not for 800 pound gorilla corporations (or certain select charters, but that's another essay), then what we're living in is not a new Age of Accountability at all, but just the same old Age of Money Talks.


  1. Great work as usual. One piece of housekeeping: your link to the "latest Pearspn testing mistake" in Virginia actually goes to a story about Washington schools' response to being designated "failing." (Another example of mistakes being part of the world.)

    1. Thanks for the heads up. I believe it's fixed now.