Racing to the Test

by Matthew Koslowski on March 31, 2010
in Essays

In This Essay

“Only Two States Win Race to Top” by Neil King, Jr., The Wall Street Journal, March 30, 2010
On the surprising science of motivation by Dan Pink, TED, August 2009
Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us by Daniel M. Koretz, Ph.D.

I think the “Race to the Top” initiative by the Obama administration is as wrongheaded as “No Child Left Behind”.

Do not get me wrong, I believe that both President Obama and Education Secretary Arne Duncan have the best interests of our children at heart. And, I believe that President Bush and Senator Ted Kennedy, who people forget co-sponsored the legislation in the Senate, had the best interest of our children at heart. But I think they all are gravely mistaken.

I have worked at banks for the past three years. I have a pay-for-performance incentive plan, based on how many checking accounts, savings accounts, home equity loans and lines of credit, and investment referrals I make.

And it does not motivate me.

The Science of Motivation

When I go into work, I want to help people who want my help. I want to provide them with a service that they need and want, that will benefit them without putting them at too much risk.

But that mindset is not rewarded by an incentive plan. The metrics of the incentive plan do not take into account the risk that people could default on their home equity loans; that they could make a mistake, bounce one check that leads to a spiral of overdrafts that they cannot repay, and damages their ability to get a bank account for years to come; or that the person was put into the best account for them.

Volume. All that the incentive plan measures is volume.

At first, when I didn’t feel motivated by the incentive plan, I thought there was something wrong with me. But I realized I saw clearly after reading about the science on motivation and watching Dan Pink’s TED Lecture.

Dan Pink’s lecture is so important that although I’ve mentioned it before, I have decided to embed it below. Please take 20 minutes to watch it.

Dan Pink on Motivation

Even business people, unless they are solving simple problems, are not motivated by incentives. Public education is much too complex a problem to be solved by paying teachers for their students performing well on one high-stakes test.

Race to the Test

People who say that teaching to a test is good education, as long as the test is valid, are wrong.

Before the flood, I was reading Measuring Up: What Educational Testing Really Tells Us by Daniel M. Koretz, Professor of Education at Harvard University. Testing is Dr. Koretz’s area of expertise. He has studied the impact of teaching to the test. The results haven’t been good.

Although the scores have gone up, Dr. Koretz attributes much of this to score inflation rather than to increased learning.

When I was preparing for the SATs, I took an SAT Preparatory Course. And I am sure many of you reading this did too. Did the SAT Course teach you anything new? And, no, “test taking strategies” do not qualify as something new. If my score was higher because of the SAT Course, it was not because I knew more for taking it, but because I was gaming the test.

Taking the time in our classes to teach “test taking strategies” for the high stakes testing takes away from the time that we could actually be teaching our children content of value. If you teach above the level of the test, children will be able to take a test.

The way to properly use tests is as assessments. Students who are tested in April do not get their scores back until June or July. Their teachers get the scores no sooner. How can a teacher adjust his or her lesson plans and pedagogy for the takers of the test without the results of the test? Tests need to be targeted and timely.

We need to put the direction of our education system back into the hands of teachers and principals. I heard recently that there is not a single teacher on the Texas Board of Education, which is creating waves with its rewriting of its curriculum standards. Imagine if the American Medical Board had lawyers and teachers and politicians, but no doctors. Imagine if the American Bar Association had doctors and dentists, but no lawyers.

The free market model is not the proper answer for every question. Education is not a commodity and should not be subject to the free market forces.


One Response to “Racing to the Test”