Assessing Ourselves To Death

I have two points to make. The first is something that I think everyone knows: Educational outcomes, such as graduation and test scores, are signals of or proxies for the traits that lead to success in life, not the cause of that success.

For example, it is well-documented that high school graduates earn more, on average, than non-graduates. Thus, one often hears arguments that increasing graduation rates will drastically improve students’ future prospects, and the performance of the economy overall. Well, not exactly.

The piece of paper, of course, only goes so far. Rather, the benefits of graduation arise because graduates are more likely to possess the skills – including the critical non-cognitive sort – that make people good employees (and, on a highly related note, because employers know that, and use credentials to screen applicants).

We could very easily increase the graduation rate by easing requirements, but this wouldn’t do much to help kids advance in the labor market. They might get a few more calls for interviews, but over the long haul, they’d still be at a tremendous disadvantage if they lacked the required skills and work habits.

Moreover, employers would quickly catch on, and adjust course accordingly. They’d stop relying as much on high school graduation to screen potential workers. This would not only deflate the economic value of a diploma, but high school completion would also become a less useful measure for policymakers and researchers.

This is, of course, one of the well-known risks of a high-stakes focus on metrics such as test scores. Test-based accountability presumes that tests can account for ability. We all know about what is sometimes called “Campbell’s Law,” and we’ve all heard the warnings and complaints about so-called “teaching to the test.” Some people take these arguments too far, while others are too casually dismissive. In general, though, the public (if not all policymakers) have a sense that test-based accountability can be a good thing so long as it is done correctly and doesn’t go too far.

Now, here’s my second point: I’m afraid we’ve gone too far.

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