What We Measure


I listened to Dr. Susan Embretson speak at UCLA last Friday.  Lots of what she said went over my head, which might be because she’s just a lot smarter than me – a situation I’m fortunate enough to be in pretty much every day of the week at UCLA and at home. But one thing I caught was that she’s working on new ways of generating test items automatically.

Her work is making it easier and cheaper to develop reliable new tests. Efficiency is always good. And research in the area of item response theory and computer adaptive testing is leading to exciting developments in diagnostically measuring student progress and providing each student with more appropriate and quicker feedback. Exciting may seem too strong a word for this extremely complex and math-heavy research, but you can check out the School of One to see what this type of individualized education could look like.

But, on the other hand, for most teachers and students, the effects so far seem to be more testing, and thinking about more testing made me think about the bigger picture of educational research. I began to wonder, not for the first time, whether a large part of this progress and this important work is rather beside the point as far as students and teachers are concerned.

Maybe we need to step back and think about our schools from a variety of perspectives. What are the problems that other people might wish we were working on?

From students’ point of view, one of the biggest problems is the lack of jobs. Huge numbers of black and brown teenagers are unemployed. But, partly due to our research emphasis on measurement and our policy emphasis on accountability, vocational programs have been cut or curtailed sharply.

From parents’ perspective, one of the biggest problems has got to be our children’s health.  The growing epidemic of obesity and diabetes seems highly relevant, yet the testing/accountability mania has led schools to cut PE, health, and recess.

From the planet’s perspective, one of the biggest problems is the epidemic of waste caused by humans.  Yet every day our schools teach our children to throw away huge amounts of food because lunch and recess times are too short and play time is too precious to be spent eating.

We are measuring carefully, but the things we’re measuring are not necessarily the things we care about. Undoubtedly, researchers are concerned about and probably even working to end unemployment, obesity, and global warming, so if we truly care about these and other issues, we need to start thinking a little less about how to measure and a little more about what we  measure.



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