Tuesday, February 24, 2015

Doublespeak Studies: "Student Achievement"

If you frame the argument, you win the argument before it even starts. And the best way to frame the argument is to choose the language that will be used to argue.

That's why, for instance, there's so much wrestling over whether to talk about "pro-choice" or "pro-life"-- because each term tilts the playing field.

Reformsters have framed the argument with precisely this technique, and nowhere have they been as successful as with the term "student achievement." It's a great re-construction, like renaming life-obliterating nuclear weapons as peacekeeper missiles, or remarketing GI Joe's not as dolls for boys, but as action figures.

The essence of doublespeak is to use a word that has two meanings-- one is the meaning that I actually have in mind when I use the term, and the other meaning is the one the audience will supply based on their own assumptions (which are based on what the word ordinarily means). So I tell my prom date we're taking a "limo" because to most people, "limo" means big elegant fancy car; but I actually mean a hotel-owned van. I use the language to conjure up a happy picture in your head, rather than confront you with smelly reality.

If you asked any 100 random people to explain what they thought student achievement meant, you would likely get a rich and varied set of answers. Student achievement sounds like it covers the full range of accomplishments, talents, skills and knowledge that we would find within a student body. It might echo the way in which I sometimes describe classes of students as a Legion of Super-Heroes (my personal preference over the Avengers or Justice League)-- a group of accomplished individuals, each with a different but exciting super power. Student achievement sounds great. It sounds like lots of young folks Getting Things Done and Fulfilling Their Promise.

But of course that's not what student achievement means at all.

"Student achievement" means "student test scores."

That's all. That's it. But reformsters have been excrutiatingly effective in getting people to think we're talking about actual student achievement while we're only talking about student test scores.

A google of "student achievement" returns 37,700,000 results. They are not encouraging.

Lots of folks want to talk about the student achievement gap. This always means the student test score gap.

When Arne Duncan tells audiences that the nation must "focus on improving teacher quality and support in order to boost student achievement," he means "to boost student test scores."

When a study last year asserted that teacher strikes hurt student achievement, fully reading the study shows that they mean the strike hurt student test scores (they didn't prove it, but they meant it).

Whenever a study talks about whether or not TFA boosts student achievement, the study is inevitably talking about whether or not TFA boost student test scores.

Whenever there's an attempt to connect teacher tenure to effects on student achievement, we turn out to actually be talking about correlations between tenure and student test scores.

In short, it has become commonplace to say "student achievement" when we really, honestly mean "student test scores." It serves reformsters well, because few people are really all that concerned about student standardized tests scores. "Chris seemed happy and thriving at school, and was coming home excited about new learning every day. Chris was just blossoming and becoming a great little person. But Chris kept got a low standardized test score last year, so we had no choice but to look for another school," said no parent ever. Ever!

As advocates for public education, here's one of the things we need to keep doing. When reformsters start saying student achievement, we need to speak up and ask, "So are you really just talking about student test scores?" Over and over.

By allowing them to say "achievement" when they mean "test scores" we are allowing them to skip over the entire discussion of whether or not the Big Standardized Test measures anything worth measuring. We allow them to skip over the discussion of whether the BS Test can be a useful proxy for anything (spoiler alert: it can't).

One of the ways to control a conversation is not to say what you mean, but to say something else so that your audience will hear something else, something different from what you are really saying. Let's stop saying "student achievement" when we're really talking about "student test scores."


  1. Excellent post... Any discussion or debate with self-proclaimed reformers should begin by explicitly defining what they mean by "student achievement" and by explicitly defining one of their other favorite doublespeak phrases "defenders of the status quo"--which they use to belittle opponents of their plans to intensify the already entrenched (status quo!?) fixation on standardized test scores as the only measure of "student achievement" and whether schools are "failing."

  2. Same is true when ever someone says that teachers (unions) are against reform. We change what we do by the hour to teach our students. We are always on the search for a better way to teach. We are opposed to doing the same job for less money. Guess which reform they mean.