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Essential Reading for Arts Education–Unintended Consequences: High Stakes Can Result in Low Standards

Okay, fair enough, the article I am strongly recommending is not about arts education, per se. Or is it? Why don’t you give a good summer read to Linda Perlstein’s piece in the American Educator: Unintended Consequences: High Stakes Can Result in Low Standards.

As an added bonus, you get a short piece by noted testing expert Daniel Koretz, whose work recently led to the recalibration of standardized ELA and Math test scores in New York State, which has in turn led to other such potent matters such as the evaporation of claims made by the New York City Department of Education as to its historic narrowing of the achievement gap.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you: you will find the article fascinating, frustrating, and a least a little bit of a headache maker.

McKnight has asked teachers to give students passages on social studies and science topics for supplemental reading lessons in preparation for the MSA. But the passages the third-graders read touched on random knowledge–Billie Holiday’s alcoholism, female Arctic explorers–and breezed by quickly. They were hard to understand on the fly when the children had such little exposure, at school and at home, to history, culture, and the natural world.

Scores on the tests used for accountability have become inflated, badly overstating real gains in student performance. Some of the reported gains are entirely illusory, and others are real but grossly exaggerated. The seriousness of the problem is hard to overstate. When scores are inflated, many of the most important conclusions people base on them will be wrong, and students–and sometimes teachers–will suffer as a result.

Koretz’s work in particular raises some of the most remarkable questions, when you consider how the test scores have been the basis for so very much “reform,” including determining the big $50 million awardees within the USDOE i3 program, bonuses for teachers and principals within merit pay programs, the closing of schools, the narrowing of the curriculum.

Is Koretz’s work here new or revelatory? While it is
important and timely, it is hardly new, people like Bob Tobias were
raising the issue for years, in this case here is some of what Tobias
reported to the New York City Council in 2005:

Standardized tests are tools designed to measure a
construct. That construct may be mathematics knowledge and skill,
reading achievement, or mastery of state learning standards. In our
zeal to raise test scores we have forgotten that the test is a measure
of learning and reified the test score to the status of learning
itself. The test score has become the coin of the realm and raising
scores through any means has become the Holy Grail.

…an unprecedented increase in test preparation has been widely
reported, including the adoption of a new program of interim testing
by the NYCDOE. Much of this test preparation is not designed to
increase student learning but rather to try to beat or “game” the
test. It may even serve to narrow learning by focusing instruction on
the sample of content and formats used on the test rather than the
broad and deep knowledge required by the standards. Thus, some of the
improvement in scores may be because students have become better test
takers rather than better learners.

Food for thought: arts education advocates and practitioners, think about this just a bit:  if one accepts that the standardized testing regimes are so very problematic, in particular the way scores on standardized tests are conflated to measure real student achievement, how can these new developments be used as the basis to expand the curriculum rather than narrow it, in this case by rewriting the position many policy makers have taken about arts education lacking “accountability.”



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