Saturday, August 7, 2010

Campbell's Law and Standardized Testing

I am so thankful for The Washington Post's Valerie Strauss. She is one of the few journalists that I know of who actually publish something about education that is worth reading.

Today a post written by Justin Snider features a handful of great reasons why we need to be more than a little skeptical of standardized test scores.

The case against standardized testing is a good one, but for many the idea that high test scores are at best unhelpful and at worst harmful to a good education system is quite counter-intuitive.

Today I wish to draw your attention, as Justin Snider has, to a well-known (but not well-known enough) social science law called Campbell's Law. Here is an excerpt from a book by David Berliner and Sharon Nichols:

Campbell's law stipulates that "the more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it was intended to monitor. Campbell warned us of the inevitable problems associated with undue weight and emphasis on a single indicator for monitoring complex social phenomena. In effect, he warned us about the high-stakes testing program that is part and parcel of No Child Left Behind.
I've come to identify Campbell's Law as high stake testing's Kryptonite. But remember that Campbell's Law is not just true for manipulative, top-down, reward and punish education policies. It is a law that rears its unavoidable head whenever you try to legislate professional behavior. In medicine, Campbell's Law plays a role in explaining why linking doctors pay to performance can leave the sickest patients without proper care, and in education, how lower performing students are being left behind by the very law that vowed not to do so.

For more on the devastating effects Campbell's Law has on education, I invite you to read David Berliner and Sharon Nichol's brilliant book Collateral Damage: How High Stakes Testing Corrupts America's Schools.


  1. Odd that there have been no comments on this so far. As you say, Campbell's Law has been discussed on many forums if only in spirit. I wonder if putting an authoritative name to something makes it more influential. Almost certainly it does for academics and technocrats. Perhaps folk are more moved by common sense. The greater the stakes, the greater the compromises people will be prepared to make. I might also suggest that the more abstract a measure is (disconnected from reality in the case of high stakes testing) the less commitment we have to its purpose. If I know some action will result in a real gain, like offering a student more time to complete something they must puzzle out independently,I will not cheat learning by offering an answer. If the student's chance to get into postsecondary rides on five percentage points, I might wave a magic wand over the scores. We think the high stakes testing lacks authenticity, so it is no surprise it lacks weight in decision-making.

  2. are we making decisions about what is considered student "achievement" by measuring it's opposite-"failure" and using that as a baseline to identify progress? that nmay not be better or worse than any other measure, but we need to be truthful about the process

  3. I wrote a post about Campbell's law here:


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