July 26, 2006

More on the politics of thresholds

Just a few days after I wrote about cut scores or thresholds, uber-conservative Charles Murray criticizes NCLB for relying on them for proficiency labels (subscription required), accountability nihilist Susan Ohanian praises him, and Ford Foundation staffer Michael Petrilli talks back at Murray. (Hat tip: Andrew Rotherham.) Update: Manhattan Institute's Jay Greene and Marcus Winters have also responded to Murray.

The most fascinating part of Petrilli's column is the bit at the end where he entirely eschews closing the achievement gap:

Sure, there will always be a bell curve, but couldn't better instruction, higher expectations, and well-prepared teachers move the entire curve to the right, getting most or all students past the "proficient" line? That's exactly what NCLB is aiming to do, rhetoric about closing the achievement gap aside.... schools [do not] have to close the gap in the average performance of subgroups. And for good reason. No one would support a policy that gave schools an incentive to hold down the performance of white students in order to show gains in closing the achievement gap.

Retired philosopher Tom Green wrote about this phenomenon in a 1980 book, Predicting the Behavior of the Educational System, and his argument went roughly like this: Any education system is pushed by external forces to make sure that the vast majority of the middle class (or the equivalent in a particular society) get a certain normative level of education. At some critical point, the normative level education rises to the next system level. Richard Freeman took this up a few years earlier from a different perspective and an argument about credentialism, The Overeducated American (1976).

I think Green underestimates the relationship between labor markets and secondary/tertiary schooling, but I never expected an accountability jingoist make his argument as if it were a good thing. Petrilli essentially transfers Green's argument about attainment to achievement: to Petrilli, we want the existing achievement gaps to continue, just as long as achievement generally increases.

This is what we call a shell game, folks. NCLB has been (and continues to be) advocated for on the basis of closing the achievement gap, ending the "soft bigotry of low expectations," as President Bush is wont to say. Now we get a different story, and it's as ugly as you can get in education: Inequality's okay. It's good. It's politically necessary to preserve it.

And this fascinating twist by a Fordham staff member makes the politics of such mundane things as cut scores so important. After a bit of reflection (11:40 pm): Will this shift be noticed by folks like Andy Rotherham, who wrote last year about the importance of putting equity over the conventional wisdom about giftedness? Petrilli's stance doesn't count as progressive in my book, except in a minimalist sense. The big picture, however, is that there are always underlying tensions behind the statistical choices made for accountability. Sometimes, they erupt into public view, as with complaints in New York City last December about the priorities of the Bloomberg administration. I'd rather have the battles out in public, to be honest, rather than obscured by pseudo-technocratic babble about proficiency levels. Isn't accountability about transparency?

(Incidentally, Petrilli's wrong about NAGB's great wisdom, but that's a different question. The best you can say about NAEP's or anyone else's different levels is that they're ordinal at the macro level.)

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on July 26, 2006 7:15 PM |