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OPINION

OPED: Universities teaching to test a disaster

GINA BARRECA
Tribune News Service
Scalia Education

Achieving accountability through testing is like achieving truth through waterboarding, achieving affection through bribery or achieving beauty through plastic surgery: You can't actually trust the results.

To emphasize metrics and measurement at the expense of learning and understanding is to marginalize what can't be measured. It puts pressure on precisely the wrong points and, like a chiropractic adjustment gone terribly wrong, can cripple rather than cure.

Connecticut is considering implementing a new version of outcomes-based funding for universities and colleges, thereby bringing policies already shown to have some disastrous effects in K-12 schools to a new level.

As someone who has taught at a state university for almost 30 years, I have a horse in this race. I choose my words carefully: The language of gambling has pervaded the vocabulary of education, especially when it comes to standardized testing, and that should make us jittery.

The thousands of articles and hundreds of books on testing, both pro and con, regularly refer to "high-stakes testing," and "gaming the system." Most recently, when reading Connecticut's task force notes, I was struck by the fact that the consultants hired to advise the politicians and other committee members suggested offering "momentum points" when students in colleges reached certain milestones.

Our local casino offers "momentum dollars" when you put enough money into the machines and pull the handle enough times. It was tough to avoid the comparison.

Isn't assessment by outcome a version of waiting to see whether you can get three lemons in a row and thereby judge yourself a winner?

While it's fine at the race-track or the roulette table, it's corrosive to talk in binary terms about winners and losers when it comes to learning. It's deeply misguided to evaluate students, teachers and educational institutions by seeing how profitable they can be when they cash-out on their returns for the lowest possible investment.

Part of the movement toward "outcomes-based" support is an emphasis on preparing graduates to enter jobs where there are "workplace shortages." Yet as my friend Barbara Cooley put it, "Teaching to the corporate demand is not exactly a recipe for original and independent thinkers."

Then there is Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who believes that African-Americans who score poorly on such tests are actually less capable, or less genuinely well prepared than people who score highly. And Larry Summers ignoring decades of research to argue to a bunch of women that the reason they weren't all math professors is that they just aren't up to the task." Test results can be rigged, too, in their interpretations.

According to a 2014 Gallup-Perdue Index, three of the most important factors in educational success are excitement, encouragement, caring. These are not delivered by teachers who whip their students into crossing finish lines.

If we extend policies that fail in schools to colleges — teaching to the test, teaching so that everything can be "measured" by some useless standardized grid devised by the impoverished minds of egregiously overpaid consultants — we'll usher in a new level of diminished possibilities for students who do not attend private, expensive universities.

To do so will add to what's called the "education gap" — except that the division is not a gap; it's a moat, a separation constructed and vigilantly maintained so that the poor and underserved will not be able to cross over into the territories held by the rich and privileged.

How much do you want to bet that Ivy League schools are not teaching to test? How much do you want to bet that they're not adopting the short-sighted goals of performance-based funding?

Why should the ambitious, dynamic and intellectually driven students at public universities be offered anything less than their more privileged counterparts?

Gina Barreca is an English professor at the University of Connecticut, a feminist scholar who has written eight books, and a columnist for the Hartford Courant.