Thursday, May 27, 2010

Testing and Choice and Ruin

The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining EducationIn a May 25th article in Education Week, Ravitch summarizes what she things is wrong with Race to the Top, the Obama administrations version of NCLB.  Among her points are two game theory arguments:
The NCLB-induced obsession with testing and test-prep activities will intensify under Race to the Top because teachers will know that their future, their reputation, and their livelihood depend on getting the scores higher, by any means necessary.

By raising the stakes for tests even higher, Race to the Top will predictably produce more teaching to bad tests, more narrowing of the curriculum, more cheating, and more gaming the system. If scores rise, it will be the illusion of progress, rather than better education. By ratcheting up the consequences of test scores, education will be corrupted and cheapened. There will be even less time for history, geography, civics, foreign languages, literature, and other important subjects.

I wrote about this sort of effect in "The Irony of Good Intentions," and it's also related to the over-valuing of SAT scores in "Amplification Amplification."  There must be some psychological flaw in our species that leads us to accept easy answers over ones that work, often taking the form of some sort of credential.  For example:
  • Bond ratings substitute for real understanding of a company
  • Investment firm stock ratings do the same
  • Standardized test scores of complex behavior substitute for actual performance
  • Degrees and other credentials substitute for demonstrated performance
  • Paper currency stands in for something (what?) of value
  • Loan applications substitute for actual ability to repay
All of these are undoubtedly useful, but are also subject to bubbles.  We're in a credential bubble now, with online for-profits cranking out degrees, racking up massive loan debts (for students), and milking the government of aid dollars. 

Probably someone has done this already, but this inflation-of-value idea probably has an archeology we can discover in word origins. For example, the word "really" used to mean "actually," according to this etymology site.
really early 15c., originally in reference to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. Sense of "actually" is from early 15c. Purely emphatic use dates from c.1600; interrogative use (oh, really?) is first recorded 1815.
Now, really means something like "very."  The word "literal" has a precise meaning that describes a certain realness.  I have noticed that's becoming fashionable to use it merely as a false credential: on the radio I heard "and the audience was literally eating out of her hand."  Somehow I doubt that's true.

Similarly, words for "large" seem to have engorged themselves.  Things become Super, and Mega.  It can't be long before the advertising executives discover the untapped vein of other standard scientific prefixes: giga, tera, peta, exa, etc. 
Would you like fries with that?
Do you want the Peta-pack or the Exa-plosion?
This arms race of "believe me!" may ultimately inflate so much that we require exponential notation to express how certain we are.  This may be another sign of Ray Kurzweil's Singularity:
Wow, that concert was REALLY10^25 good!
Oh yeah?  Well I saw one last week that was REALLY10^30 good!
And we'll probably be paying those teachers with these:

(image courtesy of Wikipedia)

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