June 17, 2006

In NSA and McGraw-Hill, we face problems of both technology and democracy

An Associated Press story today on using cryptography to allow more data-mining while (at least in theory) protecting privacy has an important point buried deep in the story: many of us just don't trust the cryptography. Without some external, independent, transparent review of the technology, a good many of us don't want the NSA or other federal agencies having access to our phone or credit-card records without a court-approved search warrant. This is a problem where issues of technology and democracy collide.

So, too, with testing. Whenever stories appear, such as the Florida Commissioner of Education's see-no-evil approach to the qualifications of test graders, we see a collision between issues of technology and democracy. Democracy demands transparency, independence, and accountability (precisely those qualities that lead proponents to defend high-stakes standardized tests). But the tests are produced and graded in secret, and every scoring error and other foul-up that is revealed from behind the veil creates the clear impression that these folks just can't be trusted with something as important as accountability.

The problem is that testing and accountability is a case where both the technology and the democratic issues are important. This is something that is hard both for defenders of high-stakes testing and some opponents to grasp. You can't go full-bore with high-stakes accountability without understanding the serious limits of any assessment. But it's close to Luddism to reject any attempt at assessment. It's tempting, certainly, given the sad history of test misuse. But this is a dilemma we have to tackle, both democratically and technocratically.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on June 17, 2006 6:49 PM |