U.S. Test Scores -- Does "That Which Is Measured Improve"?

Oct 28, 2015

We now shift gears from the sensational, exciting topic of the similarities between big data and teenage sex to the duller topic of measuring the achievement of America’s students. At its heart is the notion of measuring anyone’s performance – students, employees, athletes, you name it – why we do it, and how to do it properly.

A Washington Post article, “U.S. student performance slips on national test,” citing this year’s report on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), reports that from 2013 to 2015, fourth-grade and eighth-grade math scores declined somewhat nationwide, and were stagnant or slightly down in reading. I encourage you glance at the report, aka “the Nation’s Report Card,” not only because U.S. education progress is hugely important, but as an example of quantation – how well, effectively, and honestly do you think this information is presented?

What caught my attention, though, were comments from the president of the second-largest teachers’ union asserting that the results demonstrate the failure of our efforts to use tests to evaluate teachers and schools.

Oh, really? In business and in sports, we obsess about measuring performance. “That which is measured improves.” is a maxim attributed to many. I particularly like its “Pearson’s Law” variant: “That which is measured improves.  That which is measured and reported improves exponentially.” Why should evaluating the performance of our educators be different?

Perhaps the problem is not that we’re testing our progress in education, but that the tests are hard to interpret, and too many of them at that. And perhaps that in turn is caused by the fact that for decades the people most competent to develop assessment tests – our educators – have steadfastly resisted any and all efforts to have their performance evaluated objectively. To meet the public demand for these evaluations, in come government agencies to fill the void, with predictable results.

What do you think? Should our schools and teachers be exempt from measurement and evaluation? And if not, how should that performance be evaluated?

“Painting with Numbers” is my effort to get people to focus on making numbers understandable.  I welcome your feedback and your favorite examples.  Follow me on twitter at @RandallBolten.

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