Saturday, April 11, 2020

What Do We Want To Measure When We Get Back?

I have railed against this for years, but now it's apparently time to take the railing up a notch.

Lots of folks are worried about--or at least pretending to be worried about--the notion that students may lose a step or two during the coronahiatus, and that's reasonable concern. Every teacher knows that September, not April, is the cruelest month, the month in which you discover just how much information just sort of fell out of students' heads under the warm summer sun. This pandemic pause is undoubtedly going to set some educational goals back.

But which goals? Exactly what kind of ground do we think we're going to lose?

Cue all the folks who like to treat "student achievement" and "test score" as synonyms. Here, for instance, is a paper from the folks at testing company NWEA projecting what the COVID-19 Slide (which would be a good name for a dance) will look like. As a piece of research, it is really, really scrambling to be anything better than a best guess, and while I don't fault them for that, because what else can anyone do except make a best guess, NWEA's people have buried their guess under layers of language like this--

To provide preliminary estimates of the potential impacts of the extended pause of academic instruction during the coronavirus crisis, we leverage research on summer loss and use a national sample of over five million students in grades 3–8 who took MAP® Growth™ assessments in 2017–2018.

Sarah Sparks at EdWeek reported on this as an analysis of "student achievement and growth data,"  but it's not. It's just not. It's an analysis based on projections taken from test scores on the infamous MAP test, but setting aside any debates about the efficacy of the MAP test for a moment-- we are just talking about tests scores in two subjects. That's it.

It's a sloppy corner that an uncountable number of education journalists continually cut, but dammit-- test results are not student achievement.

Look, there's no shame in the folks at NWEA taking a wild-ass guess because nobody has data for anything like this. And there's no shame (well, maybe there's some) in talking about test scores on narrowly focused standardized tests. But say what you mean. Use the right words. Don't grab a bunch of figures about the price of oranges and start making declarations about how to grow apples. Words mean things, even in 2020. Particularly as a journalist, you should use the exact, correct, accurate word. And "student achievement" is not the exact accurate phrase to use in place of "test score."

This matters right now, first of all, because it mis-represents what people have on their minds. "Will my child fall far behind on the content? When will she learn the rest of her physics stuff? How will the school band survive all this? Will she get the knowledge and skills she'll need in college? How will she stay in touch with her friends? How will she get better at writing when she's doing so little? Is she going to get enough education to succeed in the future?" The list of parent and students goes on and on and on and I'll bet you dollars to coronadonuts that very few parents have, "Oh my God! What if her standardized test scores drop!" near the very top of their list.

But it especially matters because when schools head back, folks in charge are going to need to make some decisions about what is really important, what really needs attention. If we keep letting people pretend that "test score" is the same as "student achievement," the new school year will be immediately mired in test prep test prep test prep. The wise thing to do? Scrap the test for at least another year and focus on actually educating students.

Resources like time and focus and money and emotional fortitude are going to be limited, and policy makers, actual educators, and people with education flavored products to sell are going to be locked in debate over where those resources should be focused. "Getting test scores back up" should not be the answer. Let me remind you that even many of the reformsters have finally concluded that the Big Standardized Test isn't really telling us anything useful about students' futures, and students' futures should be the number one priority going back, and that means focusing on actual education and not test scores.

Yes, that will be hard to measure. For folks worried about that, I have just one question:

Which is more important-- getting students what they need, or getting them what can be most easily measured?

In fat and happy times, we could bat these questions around and take a miniscule comfort in the belief that maybe teachers could somehow do it all, both education and test prep. Teachers have been screaming for two decades that it's not so, that imperative to drive up math and reading scores was crushing education like a unicorn in a trash compactor. But now the time for pretense is over. Next fall, students will be shell-shocked and out of practice at doing school; some will have found a way to stay on top of things, and some will have thrown up their hands and quit months and months ago. Some schools will be financially strapped. Teachers will be pulled in a dozen directions. And for all we know, some sort of coronaviral restrictions will still stand in the way of "normal."

In fact, we don't know what "normal" is going to look like, which means this is the perfect time to redefine it. For two decades, we've allowed "normal" to mean "education centered around test results which, despite a dearth of evidence, we will pretend are reliable proxies for everything from student achievement to teacher effectiveness." That's a bad definition of "normal."

So let's take some words back, and some education as well, and in the meantime, every time you see someone try to use "student achievement" as a synonym for "test scores," call them on it. Because it should be normal for words to mean something.


  1. I live in a district where the parents really ARE screaming about the test scores dropping! Really, the majority of parents are more concerned with this and starting the online "learning" than they are about people dying. It's all a competition where I live and everyone lives or dies by the data. It's sad. And the pandemic.....has brought out the worst in these people.

  2. I would propose "measuring" only that which schools and educators can control:

    Opportunities: academic, enrichment/G&T, athletic, music & arts, extra-curricular

    Support: remedial, counselling, truancy program, homework help

    Motivation: school climate

    Teacher Preparation: time, content knowledge, best practices


  3. Back when, our teacher's room had a cartoon posted with a teacher measuring the speed of kindergarteners sliding down a playground slide. It may not have much to do with education, but it could be measured!

    I lived in China for a few years, and struggled with the language, mainly because I couldn't hear it. I've been stateside for three years now, and China seems to be always in the news these days.

    And now, with no studying at all, I find I can hear the phonemes of interviewed Chinese and recognize the words that I knew all along.

    That is to say, you never know what learning might be digested at a deeper level and provide a more solid platform for future learning, even if formal study is lacking during a long summer vacation.