Q: Why this desire to insist on quick-and-dirty measures? Is it because it's difficult for lawmakers and others to handle the complexity of what it really means to measure learning and quality teaching?
A: There is a general cultural penchant for reducing everything to numbers, such that if we are speaking in quantitative terms it is assumed we are being objective and scientific, and if we are not speaking in quantitative terms then we are soft and subjective. Albert Einstein pointed out a long time ago that not everything that counts can be counted and not everything that is counted counts. Nowhere is that more true than in the field of education. But if you're a politician who only knows about counting votes, or a corporate executive who follows sales charts, then you may adopt a simplistic view that anything that seems to be getting bigger over time must represent progress. It's much more challenging to think about issues such as intrinsic motivation to teach or to learn, intellectual exploration, and so on. And that stuff doesn't fit on a bumper sticker.
There's also a tendency to assume that test results of any kind must be valuable, which is why, when a first pass at testing teachers in Massachusetts a few years ago found very low test scores, the Speaker of our House of Representatives instantly branded our state's teachers as idiots. It never occurred to him or to the newspapers to ask whether the test itself was reasonable. I mean, you or I could sit down and within half an hour fashion a test that any group of teachers or students would fail, and then we could hold a press conference announcing the sad state of public schooling. Even though our effort should be laughed off, it would probably be taken seriously and appear in tomorrow's newspapers.
The standards movement, of which testing is just an enforcement mechanism, reflects a rather insulting view of educators, namely that they need to be told what - and, by extension, how - to teach by someone in authority because otherwise they wouldn't know. I think this whole accountability fad is just the latest example in a long sorry history of trying to devise a teacher proof curriculum. About a year ago I was speaking to a group of teacher educators and preservice students. I asked how many thought that the Praxis II teacher exams really captured what was important to know about whether people would do well in the classroom. Not a single hand went up in a very large auditorium.