Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores

March 6, 2017

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(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!


New Study Release Tomorrow

July 7, 2008

Keep your eyes peeled for the release tomorrow by the Manhattan Institute of a new study on the effect of high-stakes testing on achievement in low-stakes subjects. The study, led by Marcus Winters and co-authored by me and Julie Trivitt, examines whether achievement in math and reading comes at the expense of science on Florida standardized tests.  Because there are meaningful consequences for performance in math and reading, but not for the rest of the curriculum, many people have worried that schools would improve their math and reading results by skimping on science and other subjects.

These concerns are not just coming from the usual critics of school accountability.  Even accountability advocates have expressed second thoughts.  For example, Chester Finn writes in the National Review Online: “Do the likely benefits exceed the ever clearer costs? Boosting skill levels and closing learning gaps are praiseworthy societal goals. But even if we were surer that NCLB would attain them, plenty of people — parents, teachers, lawmakers, and interest groups — are alarmed by the price. I don’t refer primarily to dollars. (They’re in dispute, too, with most Democrats wrongly insisting that they’re insufficient.) I refer to things like a narrowing curriculum that sacrifices history, art, and literature on the altar of reading and math skills…”

Diane Ravtich has similarly stepped on the high-stakes brakes, expressing concern about the crowding out of other academic subjects and activities: “a new organization called Common Core was launched on February 26 at a press conference in Washington, D.C., to advocate on behalf of the subjects that are neglected by the federal No Child Left Behind legislation and by pending STEM legislation. These subjects include history, literature, the sciences, the arts, geography, civics, even recess (although recess is not a subject, it is a necessary break in the school day that seems to be shrinking or disappearing in some districts). I serve as co-chair of CC with Toni Cortese, executive vice-president of the American Federation of Teachers.”

To find out whether these concerns are supported by the empirical evidence from Florida, tune into the Manhattan Institute web site tomorrow to see the study.