kitchen table math, the sequel: accountability

Saturday, March 24, 2007


Exhibit A
Former School Administrator/Associate Professor
03/24/2007 5:40AM
The tacit assumption is that if our students score higher on standardized tests that they will be better prepared for life. [ed.: in the case of reading comprehension scores, this assumption happens to be correct] As such, the question, according to James Popham, has shifted from "How can we improve student learning?" to "How can we raise test scores?" Albert Einstein perhaps said it best, "Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted." AND "The only thing that interferes with my learning is my education."

Exhibit B
from State of Denial: Bush at War, Part III by Bob Woodward:
Adelman asked Cody, a husky 1972 West Point graduate and master aviator with 5,000 hours of flight time, what they were measuring to see how the war was going. "What are the metrics coming back that you would say were needed to identify so we know if we're winning or losing?"

"I'd say three," Cody replied. "Number one is the number of Iraqi civilians that are killed by these insurgent attacks. Number two is the number of usable, important bits of information we get from the iraqi people--the actionable intelligence. And number three is the number of competent Irai police and military." ...

Shortly after, Rumsfeld entered. "Let's take some questions," he said.

Adelman asked him the same question he'd asked Cody. "What metrics would you use for success in Iraq? You know, for winning the war?"

"Oh, there are hundreds," Rumsfeld replied. "It's just so complicated that there are hundreds."


"Wait a minute," Adelman insisted. "A former boss of mine always said identify three or four things, then always ask about, get measurements and you'll get progress or else you'll never get any progress." The former boss was Rumsfeld himself, who had driven the point home to Adelman 35 years before, when he worked for Rumsfeld at the Office of Economic Opportnity. What are they? Adelman insisted.

Rumsfeld said it was so complicated that he could not give a list.

Adelman believed that meant there was a total lack of accountability. If Rumsfeld didn't agree to any criteria, he couldn't be said to have failed on any critieria.

"Hundreds," Rumsfeld insisted.

"Then you don't have anything," Adelman said.

Exhibit C
from Joanne Jacobs & The Gadfly, Head Start to stop testing children:
This tug of war over the direction of Head Start [academic preparation for Kindergarten versus "child development"] has been going on for years. It's the main reason the 109th Congress failed to reauthorize the program. Now the establishment is winning and the 110th Congress will be able to say that it actually did something, albeit something dumb. The cognizant House committee voted last week to kill the National Reporting System, substituting happy talk about "strengthening school readiness by re-evaluating and updating current standards and assessments based on the best science...and improving professional development related to supporting children's cognitive, social and emotional development."

What's on the test?
  • picture/word vocabulary assessment
  • letter naming assessment involving all the letters of the alphabet in upper and lower case
  • short test on early math skills covering simple addition and subtraction, reading of numbers, relative size judgments, and the ability to make use of graphic and pictorial information involving representation of quantities

Instead of assessing Head Start kids to see if they know the alphabet, we'll be re-evaluating and updating current standards and assessments based on the best science.

I'm sure that will work.

A sociologist friend who's working on an assessment project sent me a link to Counting and Recounting: Assessment and the Quest for Accountability awhile back.

Haven't read it yet, but the opening paragraphs are arresting:

When my daughter Dina returned from her first class in managerial accounting early in her MBA program, I innocently asked how it had gone. I fully expected her to describe her boredom with the rigors of accounting, since pursuing an MBA was decidedly an afterthought for my iconoclastic daughter, who already held degrees in theatre and social work.

Imagine my surprise when Dina responded that accounting was unexpectedly interesting because, she now realized, it should be understood as a form of narrative, a kind of drama. Within the ethical and technical rules of the field, the task of the accountant is to figure out which of the stories of the company should be told through the medium of its "books." Accounting is basically about creating the plot, characters, and setting of the story. As the instructor explained to the class, "Your task is to render an account: to tell the facts of the case, the story of the condition of a company in an accurate and yet ultimately persuasive way."


Indeed, historian of science Mary Poovey argues in A History of the Modern Fact that a significant source for the modern conception of a scientific fact—that which is measurable, replicable, visible, quantitative, and credible—is the invention of double-entry bookkeeping in late-16th century England. Thus accounting was a source for modern scientific conceptions of evidence; then, in full-circle fashion, scientific doctrines became the basis for our contemporary conceptions of account-ability in education.

I love that.

The very concept of a scientific fact grew out of double-entry bookkeeping in late-16th century England!

Well, I say let's have more of it.

More double-entry bookkeeping. More tests, more scores, more entries in the book. (With parent opt-in, of course!)

More low-stakes assessment, please. More value-added.

The assertion that "not everything that counts can be counted" is self-serving claptrap, beginning to end. As is the observation that Iraq is complex.

Yes, some good things can't be counted & Iraq is complex. I don't need John N. Colantoni and Don Rumsfeld to tell me that.

I'd like to know what my child has learned in school -- in school, not at home -- and where he stands in relation to his peers here and abroad.

And I'd like my school to be able to tell me.

That's going to require numbers.

off-topic: State of Denial

It's a tour de force.

I'm pretty sure this is a book both supporters and opponents of the Iraq War find riveting, for all of the reasons Peggy Noonan did:

Thirty-two years into his career as a writer of books, Bob Woodward has won a reputation as slipshod ("Wired"), slippery ("All the President's Men," "The Final Days"), opportunistic ("Veil"; everything) and generally unaware of the implications even of those facts he's offered that have gone unchallenged. As a reporter he's been compared to a great dumb shark, remorselessly moving toward hunks of information he can swallow but not digest.


Now he has thwarted me. I bought "State of Denial" thinking I might have a merry time bashing it and a satisfying time defending the innocent injured.

But it is a good book. It may be a great one. It is serious, densely, even exhaustively, reported, and a real contribution to history in that it gives history what it most requires, first-person testimony. (It is well documented, with copious notes.) What is most striking is that Mr. Woodward seems to try very hard to be fair, not in a phony "Armitage, however, denies it" way, but in a way that--it will seem too much to say this--reminded me of Jean Renoir: "The real hell of life is that everyone has his reasons."

I may finally have lost my mind, but not infrequently, reading about the interagency process and bureaucratic infighting and the utter inability of the govt to get anything done months after presidential directives have been issued, reissued, and re-reissued.....our public schools kept springing to mind.

My favorite moment, second only to the scene in which Rumsfeld says there are hundreds of metrics, is a passage in which Rumsfeld reacts to "The Revolt of the Generals."

Why are the generals so ticked off? he's asked.

His answer?

Change is hard!

"But I think it's important that we recognize that there's a lot of change going on, it's challenging for people, it's difficult for people."


In other words it was very hard to be defense secretary with so many backward-looking forces arrayed against him.

I experienced a moment of extreme irony, reading this passage.

I'm used to educators calling parents out of date and afraid of change, but the "SecDef" telling reporters that Generals are out of date?

I'm adding "Change is hard" to my list of banned expressions.

Rand Statistics Group

Trust in Numbers by Theodore Porter


Independent George said...

I completely disagree with the first statement:

The tacit assumption is that if our students score higher on standardized tests that they will be better prepared for life.

No, the tacit assumption is the converse: if students are better prepared for life, they will score higher on the standardized tests. In other words, if students are able to read and count, then they should have no problems with tests on reading and math.

I don't know any supporters of standardized testing who thinks that the tests themselves are what's important. The only subset of people I've ever encountered who actually believe that are testing opponents, who think that the tests themselves are causing poor performance by students.

Catherine Johnson said...

good point

that's a constant challenge in talking about "teaching to the test"

I still haven't come up with a pithy way to counter that.

Anonymous said...

At the risk of hijacking the thread ...

the invention of double-entry bookkeeping in late-16th century England...

Double-entry book keeping was invented at the latest in 1493. That was the year that Luca Pacioli published his book "Summa", which contains a section on double-entry bookkeeping. The technique had probably been evolving since maybe the 1300s.

England in the late 1500s is about 100 years too late, and in the wrong country.

And this has nothing to do with the quote, the point of which I agree with.

-Mark Roulo

Anonymous said...

A possible example of the "change is hard" for generals:

The U.S. Navy, after nearly six years of warnings from Pentagon testers, still lacks a plan for defending aircraft carriers against a supersonic Russian-built missile, according to current and former officials and Defense Department documents.

The missile, known in the West as the ``Sizzler,'' has been deployed by China and may be purchased by Iran. Deputy Secretary of Defense Gordon England has given the Navy until April 29 to explain how it will counter the missile, according to a Pentagon budget document.

These are admirals, not generals (and the story may be only partially correct), but this sounds like it would be very frustrating to manage.

-Mark Roulo

Catherine Johnson said...


Mark -- thanks.

I'm sure change is hard for generals, parents (and educators!)

I'm just tired of hearing "change is hard" used as an ad hominem argument.

Anonymous said...

No, the tacit assumption is the converse: if students are better prepared for life, they will score higher on the standardized tests.

I'd like to add a resounding "Duh!"

I'm going to memorize this for the next time I hear that same ole' complaint.