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Reviewing "Measuring Up"
(Daniel Koretz, Measuring Up, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2008)

By David W. Kirkpatrick (September 25, 2008)
Senior Education Fellow
U.S. Freedom Foundation www.freedomfoundation.us

 
         This new book by Koretz, a professor of education at Harvard University is an invaluable guide to the subject of testing which "has become the subject of intense controversy, and quite a number of polemics have been published in recent years, both pro-testing and anti-testing.  His text is no polemic, and lives up to his goal of helping "readers understand the complexities inherent in testing, avoid the common mistakes, and be able to interpret test scores reasonably and use tests productively."
 
         As with any book of substance, a certain level of literacy is necessary and an interest in the subject is helpful but Koretz writes with a commendable lack of jargon and minimal use of charts, graphs, and formulas.
 
         Having said that, the picture he draws is not an encouraging one.  He notes that "Large-scale group achievement tests date back to at least the 1840s," that is, to the beginnings of a public school system in the U.S.  However, for much of the succeeding years such testing was primarily diagnostic in nature.  "They were not intended to provide summary evaluations of the performance of schools, districts, states, or nations, or to hold educators accountable."
 
         Not until 1965, when Congress enacted the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act, and Title I regarding special education, did the federal government became heavily involved in basic education.  A few years later came the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) which began periodic assessments of student achievement.
 
         The first statewide minimum competency testing program came in 1971, by the end of the 1970s, 35 states had such programs, and by the end of the 1990s, virtually all did.  As testing became widespread it attracted more and more opposition, not just to specific problems with what, at best, is a difficult issue.  Since some students inevitably do better than others one objection has been that it creates winners and losers.  Koretz doesn't share this view.  He states that testing may designate winner and losers but it doesn't "create" them because, in fact, "there are winners and losers."
 
         Of course it is one thing to recognize this truth in the abstract; it's another thing to accept it as a reality when it's your children or your group that is identified as "losers," even if euphemisms are used.
 
         Already, by the late 1980s, the inflation of scores had become apparent, the result of the truism that the more importance placed on testing the greater the tendency for the corruption of the system.  This was demonstrated when a West Virginia physician, John Cannell, concerned over some of his adolescent patients who seemed depressed because of school although they had good test scores.  With some assistants he conducted a survey that concluded most districts and states were reporting that their students were performing above the national average, a statistical impossibility.
 
         Sometimes referred to as the "Lake Woebegone Effect," after humorist Garrison Keillor's mythical town where all the children are above average, Dr. Cannell's study has been reported from time to time.  It seems to have generally received with a bemused chuckle or two when it should have been greeted with outrage.  After all, to the extent that such a development is occurring, and Koretz himself indicates it is practically universal, it means that the public is being lied to, that "professional" educators are more concerned with deceiving the public about what the annual expenditure of a half-trillion dollars is producing than they are with what is actually achieved by students.
 
         Koretz finds "Inflated Test Scores" of sufficient seriousness that he devotes a chapter to them, in which he concludes  "the seriousness of this problem is hard to overstate...This is the dirty secret of high stakes testing." He further concludes that this is the rule, not the exception.  As an expert in the field himself, including experience teaching in basic education, he reports that he and a colleague, "investigated a variety of subject and grade levels, and in every case, we found sizable inflation of scores."
 
         Other chapters of significance to the general reader are, "Adverse Impact and Bias,  Testing Students with Special Needs, and Sensible Uses of Tests."

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          "We know that education in this country is as bad as it can be.  We know that it is old-fashioned, irrelevant, and not meaningful."  Sen Abraham A. Ribicoff, The Express, Easton, PA, Feb. 23, 1970

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Copyright 2008 David W. Kirkpatrick
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