Does Testing Promote Accountability or Accounting?
These are vexing times for educators interested in nuance, context and complexity. Critics of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) assert that the act robs teachers and students of opportunities to richly explore ideas and events. Advocates, by contrast, believe the legislation offers a more leveled playing field for all students by ratcheting up the accountability of all players.
It is no big surprise that NCLB proponents favor tests as the vehicle to accomplish their goal. Despite the costs of money and time, testing is a relatively cheap intervention. Moreover, many Americans believe that tests provide a fair method of judging student performance and a fair means of holding both teachers and students responsible. They may be right. But increasingly, tests and test scores seem more about accounting than accountability.
Many school observers question how we assess what students know and what sense we make of the assessments we use. These questions are not new; in fact, there is a wide-ranging debate about what “counts” as successful learning, teaching and teacher preparation. Playing out in interesting and complex ways, this debate illuminates the gulf between accounting and accountability.
Despite all the public talk about accountability, the actions around schooling look like accounting. The accounting impulse, which I define as dividing complex ideas and behaviors into bite-sized bits, labeling those bits, and then counting them endlessly, appears in myriad places today. The public comparisons of school test scores, the magazine rankings of colleges and universities, and the requirements of national accrediting bodies are the most obvious illustrations, but the need to equate quality with numerical and rankable scores seems ingrained in American society.
Counting is, of course, a legitimate means of identifying patterns of social behavior. Identifying a pattern, however, is not the same thing as interpreting and assigning value to it. And on both of those fronts—interpreting patterns and assigning value to them—at least two problems arise. One is the notion that counting alone is sufficient as a means of establishing a pattern; a second problem arises when counting is not the best measure of a phenomenon. Both of these problems are rooted in the twin assumptions that numbers speak clearly and singularly, and that everyone interprets them in the same way.
Two brief examples illustrate my point. First, consider the example of NBA basketball players’ heights. As a group, they are notably taller than the average American man (6’7” compared with 5’9”), a clear statistical difference. Yet this singular feature means little; height may be necessary, but it is far from sufficient, as the number of tall but NBA-rejected players attests. Noting players’ heights seems like it ought to be useful; other indicators—both measurable (e.g., field goal percentage) and immeasurable (e.g., the ability to make one’s teammates better on the floor)—may have as much or more value. Counting a phenomenon is not a problem; assuming that a single measure can tell the whole story is.
Many more examples demonstrate the concern about using a single, easily counted measure, but one more should suffice: Does the fact that some 80 different revisions were made to Thomas Jefferson’s draft of the Declaration of Independence mean that his effort was sub-par? Such a measure may be useful for accounting, but it fails to demonstrate accountability.
Before turning back to schools, let us take a minute to examine the notion of accountability. Jefferson and his compatriots are a good place to start: By any accounting of military advantage, the colonists should have capitulated to England, yet Jefferson, Washington, and thousands of lesser known Americans took full responsibility for their future lives and livelihoods. (That many did not hold themselves accountable for African slavery is a discussion for another time.) As a result, taking responsibility for one’s actions—being accountable—appears to be a widely held value in American society. And it is one that currently frustrates Americans eager to see someone accept responsibility for events such as the September 11 attacks, hurricane damage by Katrina, and the recent economic collapse. There is much to count around these situations, but accountability seems illusive.
Back to schools. For over 20 years now, observers have filled the education airwaves with talk about increasing standards, creating more rigorous curricula, and the like. The aim of that talk—to create a more worthwhile education by increasing student and teacher accountability—seems right. Unfortunately, the single measure assigned to drive this reform has been standardized testing. And there lies the rub: test scores provide a convenient accounting measure, but they fail to offer deep insights into what students know. Accountability demands a measure of time, attention, interest, and investment. These attributes seem ill represented in a state-mandated, standardized assessment program that privileges accounting over accountability. #
S.G. Grant is Dean of the School of Education, Binghamton University, State University of New York.