Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In case you missed it, in today’s U.S. News & World Reportthe inimitable Robert Pondiscio gently chides fellow school choice advocates for getting caught up in a debate over test scores, which are ancillary to the true value of school choice:

Wonky battles over research studies can be illuminating. They can also be irrelevant or premature. While [school choice] advocates are correct that the preponderance of evidence tends to favor school choice, this entire debate puts the cart before the horse. When we look to test-based evidence – and look no further – to decide whether choice “works,” we are making two rather extraordinary, unquestioned assumptions: that the sole purpose of schooling is to raise test scores, and that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.

That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the “evidence” that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child’s talents or interests or your family’s values and traditions, the question of whether school choice “works” has already been answered. It’s working perfectly for you.

Deciding whether or not to permit parents to choose based on test-based evidence is presumptuous. It says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing. Worse, our evidence-based debate presumes that a single, uniform school structure is and ought to be the norm, and that every departure from that system must justify itself in terms of a narrow set of outcomes that may not reflect parents’ – or society’s – priorities. Academic outcomes matter, of course, but so do civic outcomes, character development, respect for diversity and faith and myriad others.

This isn’t to say that the research on the effect of school choice on test scores is meaningless. But it has to be read and understood in the broader context. Test scores are important, but they’re far from what’s most important about exercising educational choice. As Pondiscio concludes:

School choice proponents who seek to prove that vouchers, tax credits and scholarships “work” by citing test-score-based research have allowed themselves to be lured into argument that can never be completely won. They have tacitly agreed to a reductive frame and a debate over what evidence is acceptable (test scores) and what it means to “win” (better test scores). This is roughly akin to arguing whether to shop at your neighborhood grocery store vs. Wal-Mart based on price alone. Price is important, but you may have reasons for choosing the Main Street Grocery that matter more to you than the 50 cents per pound you’d save on ground beef. Perhaps Main Street’s fresh local produce and personal service are more important to you.

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

Amen, brother!

13 Responses to Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores

  1. Ze'ev Wurman says:

    Excellent piece by Robert.

    If it is all about any kind of metric, or more efficiency, the current public school system will always win — the comparison will always be on its terms. If you show better scores, they will argue better social adjustment; if you show efficiency they will argue how some non-public schools can’t handle the full range of disabilities.

    Only when choice is understood as the fundamental right of parents to raise their children the way they want — rather than the way the state wants — will the lines clarify.

  2. Matthewladner says:


  3. Greg Forster says:

    I agree with all this, but as George Will has said, “the world is not a seminar.” The number of people who will sit still for a philosophical discussion is small. Test scores earn us a hearing we can’t get any other way. The only viable option is both/and.

    • rpondiscio says:

      Interesting Greg. Your point is excellent and I agree. But I thought (my turn to be presumptuous) that *I* was making a Willian argument. Understanding and parsing the data is the seminar. The choice-for-choice sake argument is simple and visceral: You choose where you shop, the car you drive, who to vote for, where to attend church, and whether to attend at all.

      I agree it’s “both/and” but I would make that “both/and/when.” I’m not interested in data. But it should function to inform choice and improve outcomes, not serve as a permission slip to decide whether I deserve the ability to choose.

  4. bkisida says:

    It’s always nice to read something that says exactly what you’ve been wanting to say but does a better job of articulating those thoughts. Pondiscio’s piece is a great example.

    I might add that I really appreciate the diversity bromides. Has Rob been moonlighting as a twitter account manager for foundations? (Sorry Jay, I couldn’t resist).

  5. So how can parents get the choice of a non-Common Cored school?

    • Zeev Wurman says:

      Sandy’s question may seem as if driven by a tunnel vision, yet it is not.

      Robert wrote a powerful and beautiful article about the importance of choice. Yet how can he argue that “choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values” and yet deny choice in, perhaps, the most elementary aspect of education, its language acquisition and its math programs?

      Robert has been a strong supporter of Common Core for a long time. His argument — at least in ELA — has been that Common Core is a strong and effective program and that is good enough for him. A lot of curriculum experts disagree with him, yet even if he is right that Common Core is a strong program, surely he doesn’t believe that Common Core is the BEST POSSIBLE program. Anyone who is not a fool is aware that there are many ways to successfully teach the content, rather than only the Common Core’s way. And Robert certainly isn’t a fool.

      So a question for Robert. An honest one, truly. How does Robert reconcile his support for Common Core to be used essentially everyplace across the whole country, while singing the praise of parental choice in choosing a school and a program that fits the needs of *their* child? Isn’t it a bit like Henry Ford’s offer of his Model T with a choice of colors, as long they are all black?

      • rpondiscio says:

        I’ve answered this question for you 100 times, Zeev. You’ve never liked my answer before and you won’t like it now: standards are not curriculum. Auto safety standards don’t dictate what car you buy. Building codes are silent on what home you purchase and where. Food handling procedures and FDA regs don’t determine what you eat for dinner. And standards don’t dictate what kids do in school all day.

      • rpondiscio says:

        BTW, Zeev, the other thing I’ve said over and over that you also ignore (apropos of my being a “strong supporter” of Common Core) is that standards don’t really interest me that much. Or they interest me about as much as building codes and FDA regs. My interest is curriculum and standards give those of us who are curriculum fans the delivery mechanism to have that conversation.

        So feel free now to beat me bloody yet again on this (ignoring or dismissing all of the above). I’ll be disappointed if you don’t. And I promise I’ve said my last word.

  6. Rob, I was educated reasonably well in a non-standards environment in a small NE town. My 5 children were reasonably well-educated in a non-standards environment in a bigger and more sophisticated NE town. Where is there any support for the notion that “standards give those of us who are curriculum fans the delivery mechanism to have that conversation.” Standards aren’t a “delivery mechanism” but a source of possibilities for a curriculum. Whether they are a source of good possibilities depends on the quality of the education of the curriculum developer. We no longer have “curriculum specialists” in this country who know what they are doing. We had some available in the “Sputnik” era, and for programs developed in the 50s and 60s, but most are gone by now. All standards, state or federal, need to be eliminated now and replaced by a few people capable of talking about what kids could and should learn in K-12, grade by grade, in a few major subjects, and why. We don’t need federal or state mandated tests, either.

    As good as the standards and tests in MA were, most states had poor standards and poor tests and only a few showed signs of understanding what a language arts or math/science curriculum K-12 was about. CC set us back about 50 years or more. It is anti-curriculum in orientation because it sees thinking taking place in an intellectual vacuum and believes the goal of the schools is to close gaps among politically defined groups.

  7. Kronos says:

    This is the case of Lucy taking away the football. The whole dang school reform structure has been based on Reagan’s report yelling about how bad our test scores were. This spawned 30 years of standardized tests and all kinds of federal oversight based on those tests. It also gave folks the necessary talking points for driving the school choice wedge into the public school model. We were supposed to get choice to escape bad schools because…test scores. So here we are now with a Republican dominated government getting ready to dismantle public schools and what do we hear? That it was never really about test scores. There are only crocodile tears for the Dems because they bought into the whole testing paradigm. We all got screwed because our schools have had all this testing nonsense pushed on them for years. Well played.

  8. Humm … it seems that vouchers are taking a big hit in media today based on poor results. Can anyone clarify the following:


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