Test Talk: 102 Years Later

Test Talk: 102 Years Later

By on May 4, 2015




A term that US presidents and education policy makers use to hoodwink educators and parents into believing that standardized tests developed by test makers, who probably wouldn’t even recognize a child if they saw one, will ensure that your child has the best teacher and is, therefore, learning.

John Oliver, in his recent rant on standardized testing, also tries to unpack what is meant by "accountability," but can only conclude:

“…as I can see, this is a system which has enriched multiple companies and that pays and fires teachers with a cattle birthing formula, confuses children with talking pineapples, and has the same kind of rules regarding transparency that Brad Pitt had for Fight Club.”

Yes, so it appears that the value-added modeling formula used to calculate teacher effectiveness based upon student achievement scores was created by an agricultural statistician:

The dominant corporation in the field of value added is SAS, a North Carolina company. Their Value Added Assessment and Research Manager is Dr. William Sanders who is also the primary designer of their model. While working at the University of Tennessee, his remarkable research into agricultural genetics and animal breeding inspired the very model now in use for teacher evaluation. The resultant SAS formula boasts a proprietary blend of numbers and probabilities. Since it is a closely guarded intellectual property, it becomes the classic enigma wrapped up in taxpayer dollars.

And look! Here’s the introduction to an article about using “cow math” to estimate herd productivity that sounds applicable to education:

The ability to measure performance is a key component in all beef cow operations, and measuring production efficiency is becoming increasingly important. Regardless of size, producers must be able to identify the current status of their operation in order to make adjustments toward improvement. Cow culling is a key management tool for herd improvement, and being able to identify the poorly producing cows within a herd is essential.

Identifying and culling poor teachers is also essential in education. As one fellow at the Manhattan Institute stated in 2010:

Getting rid of bad teachers is by far the most effective education reform we could hope to enact.

Really? Because I think education has a much bigger problem: its industrial framework, into which policy makers continue to stuff reforms, yet they can’t figure out why any of them don’t work. I was never very good at math, but what’s the constant in that equation?

In any case, all of this standards-and-testing-and-linking-student-scores-to-teacher-effectiveness talk is not new. It’s not innovative. As Raymond Callahan wrote in his 1964 study of the social forces that shaped our public schools, this was the talk of education in 1913 (1913!):

But setting up standards was only the first step. Scales of measurement were necessary to determine “whether the product rises to standard.” . . . These scales were of great value to the teacher, [Franklin Bobbitt] said, because “having these definite tasks laid upon her, she can know at all times whether she is accomplishing the things expected of her or not. She can herself know whether she is a good teacher, a medium teacher, or a poor teacher.” And they were of great value to the supervisor since they enabled him to tell at a glance which teachers were strong and which ones were weak. A teacher who fell short of the standard was “unmistakably shown to be a weak teacher,” and the supervisor would have “incontestable evidence of inefficiency against the weak teacher who cannot or refuses to improve.” This knowledge would enable the management to “instantly overcome” one of the most troublesome problems in the schools – that of getting rid of inefficient teachers” (p. 81-82).[1]


I wonder if the Manhattan Institute knows that one of their fellows is spouting a message from 1913.


Are we seriously going to keep having the same conversation for another 102 years?

I encourage you to watch all of John Oliver’s segment on standardized testing (which is below) because it’s just funny. However, keep in mind that he doesn’t mention the industrial framework, or the fact that testing sets up an environment wherein educators are likely to cheat. But Franklin Bobbitt knew this was a possibility. He knew it in 1913:

After settling the problem of establishing standards and developing measuring scales for all educational products, Bobbitt turned to the question of who should do the testing. It should be done, he said, by the “workers all along the line” but since it was “an accepted principle for the business world that the department which inspects the product must be wholly independent of the department which is responsible for securing the product,” it would be necessary to have a special inspection department. However, because of the “greater probity” of educators over “corresponding workers in a business organization” the rule would not need to be applied strictly. Yet, he pointed out that when salaries and promotions hinged on test results the temptation to cheat a little would be great; therefore it would be necessary to “reinforce this probity” (p. 85).[1]

Franklin Bobbitt established the conventional wisdom of curriculum development and outcome measurement while knowing that a system of standards and testing might lead teachers to cheat. Yet we are shocked and outraged when it actually happens.

I don’t know about you, but I need a good laugh.



  1. Callahan, R. E. (1962). Education and the cult of efficiency: A study of the social forces that have shaped the administration of the public schools. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press. [Bobbit’s quotes are taken from The Supervision of City Schools: Some General Principles of Management Applied to the Problems of City-School Systems, “Twelfth Yearbook of the National Society for the Study of Education,” Part I, (Bloomington, Ill., 1913).]


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