The Test-Based Language Of Education

A recent poll on education attitudes from Gallup and Phi Delta Kappan got a lot of attention, including a mention on ABC’s "This Week with Christian Amanpour," which devoted most of its show to education yesterday. They flashed results for one of the poll’s questions, showing that 72 percent of Americans believe that "each teacher should be paid on the basis of the quality of his or her work," rather than on a "standard-scale basis."

Anyone who knows anything about survey methodology knows that responses to questions can vary dramatically with different wordings (death tax, anyone?). The wording of this Gallup/PDK question, of course, presumes that the "quality of work" among teachers might be measured accurately. The term "teacher quality" is thrown around constantly in education circles, and in practice, it is usually used in the context of teachers’ effects on students’ test scores (as estimated by various classes of "value-added" models).

But let’s say the Gallup/PDK poll asked respondents if "each teacher should be paid on the basis of their estimated effect on their students’ standardized test scores, relative to other teachers." Think the results would be different? Of course. This doesn’t necessarily say anything about the "merit" of the compensation argument, so to speak, nor does it suggest that survey questions should always emphasize perfect accuracy over clarity (which would also create bias of a different sort). But has anyone looked around recently and seen just how many powerful words, such as "quality," are routinely used to refer to standardized test score-related measures? I made a tentative list.

  • Quality
  • Effective/ineffective
  • Good/bad (better/worse)
  • Excellent
  • Poor
  • Value
  • Performance
  • Achievement
  • Proficiency
  • Success
  • Failure
  • Improvement
  • Progress
  • Growth
  • Merit

Advocates involved in almost every public issue – from healthcare to abortion – spend a great deal of time and resources trying to mold the vocabulary surrounding their issues, because doing so is one of the most effective ways to increase support and control the dialogue. It is also perfectly normal to use shorthand descriptors, and to "characterize" quantitative measures with more relatable terms. Most of us involved in these discussions know what we mean when we use these terms.

But I’m not sure everyone does, especially the mass of people who get their information about education in newspapers and other outlets. And I have to wonder how different our education discussions would sound if all of us were magically forced to stop using these words and say what we actually mean by them.

What if the achievement gap were called the "standardized test score gap between races/income groups?" What if merit pay was known as "differentiated pay based on estimated teacher effects on students’ standardized test scores?" Would there be so much outrage against "bad teachers" if we called them "teachers whose students show standardized test score gains that are lower than similar peers?" Would anyone get behind closing "schools with aggregate test score increases lower than comparable schools?"

To reiterate – there is nothing wrong with simplification and relatable language, and I’m not saying that we should say "standardized test scores" every time we refer to them. But nobody thinks that test scores can possibly quantify what we mean by words like "achievement" and "performance," yet we (myself included) routinely use these words in this manner. And the degree to which our education lexicon has been infiltrated by these implied value judgments is sometimes a bit disturbing, at least to me.