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What Bernie Madoff Can Teach Us about Accountability in Education

Publication Date: 2009-03-24

From href=http://hobokencurriculumproject.blogspot.com
about.html"> Hoboken Curriculum Project
, Feb.
19, 2009, a final version of this commentary
appeared in Education Week, March 18,

Certainly the new Obama administration has taken
several Bernie Madoff lessons to heart, including
surrounding itself with true believers. No one
else need apply. And there's more. . . .

Mindful of H.L. Mencken's observation that, "for
every complex problem there is an answer that is
clear, simple and wrong," the new Obama
administration should avoid making the mistake of
previous administrations in equating
accountability in education with high-stakes test
scores. There is increasing evidence that flaws
in current test design should all but disqualify
their continued use as metrics of accountability,
especially in science and mathematics education.

To help us head off a potential collapse of trust
in public education comparable in scale to the
collapse of trust in our financial system, we
might look to draw parallels from what we are
learning with the economy. In particular, the
closure of Bernie Madoff's fraudulent investment
firm stands to teach us at least four basic
lessons we might use in reflecting on the role
high-stakes testing has in driving current
education reform.

A first lesson is that the most compelling
evidence for something being wrong is often
hidden in plain view. Consistent investment
returns of ten percent or more can't be real, and
they weren't. Similarly in education, there is
mounting evidence in plain view that our current
approach to high-stakes test design can't tell us
what we need to know in order to drive education

Separate from whether any one test can give a
complete picture of what a student knows or what
he or she has learned in a given year - where the
answer is obviously "no" - there is the more
precise question of whether, empirically, the
tests work as good measures of what a teacher has
done during a given school year? The answer to
the latter question is also "no."

Using student scores from the Texas Assessment of
Knowledge and Skills (TAKS) our university-based
research group has analyzed both the
effectiveness of some specific reform projects in
mathematics as well as year-to-year scores from
the entire state in science, mathematics, social
studies and English. For the most part, we found
the TAKS tests to be what W. James Popham from
Stanford University calls "insensitive to

This means that even in situations where
sensitivity to instruction is most implicated -
e.g., situations where there is a sustained,
aggressive, high-quality, and content-focused
intervention - most of a student's score (more
than seventy percent of the variance) on the
high-stakes TAKS test is predicted by the
pervious year's math scores (with, at most, only
7-8% of the variance related to the
intervention). We have checked with colleagues
involved in mathematics interventions from around
the country and their results with similar tests
are comparable. We also found the predictive
power of previous math scores holds up over a
number of years of math testing, not just for the
year prior.

We then did a series of cross-disciplinary
comparisons where the results might be expected
to be the most distinct: Math scores versus
English, science, or social studies scores. What
we again found were similarly high levels of test
scores predicting other test scores in ways that
are very likely to overwhelm the effects that any
teacher could be expected to have in any given

For reform-oriented accountability to work, test
scores need to be highly sensitive to what
educators do. Instead we have tests made up of
items selected for their ability to consistently
sort students, year-in and year-out, in the same
order relative to an increasingly cross-test,
cross-year, and even cross-domain psychometric
"profile" (i.e., the location of students, in
terms of an ability construct, on a logistic
curve) developed by the testing organizations.

Needless to say, these results are highly
problematic for reform.

A second important lesson Madoff teaches us is
that for misrepresentation to work at a large
scale, our desires and, even more so, our fears
need to be played to, often by appeals to highly
specialized forms of expertise or insider

Perhaps no single piece of recent domestic
legislation speaks more directly to our hopes and
fears as a nation than the goals of the No Child
Left Behind legislation to improve both equity
and the levels of excellence in education.

The fact, then, that these largely self-
referential and self-confirming testing profiles
align so consistently with existing inequities
related to socio-economic status, race, or first
language only serves to underscore how
problematic our findings are. That the math tests
in Texas are now being validated, in the name of
predicting "college readiness," with what
historically have been tests of "aptitude" (e.g.,
the SAT) with comparably problematic outcomes
along these same dimensions, makes it even more
likely our high-stakes tests in mathematics and
science are to re-inscribe precisely the sorts of
inequities the No Child Left Behind legislation
was ostensibly meant to address.

Making matters worse, in an era when
accountability hinges on improving scores,
changing a student's placement on this self-
referential profile - by teaching test-taking or
test-breaking skills - is likely to be at least
as effective as teaching the actual content
better. Minimum exposure to content plus heavy
test preparation, especially in schools that are
underperforming, might very well turn out to be
an "optimal" gaming strategy for improving
scores. Anyone who has spent time recently in
schools feeling pressure to improve test scores
can attest to a dramatically heightened attention
to test-taking skills at a level that might even
make the employees of test-preparation companies,
like Stanley KaplanTM, blush. The consequences of
teaching "test taking," as opposed to substantive
math or science, are likely to be profound in
their long term implications, especially for
children attending schools currently deemed

A third lesson Madoff teaches us is that if you
want to forestall the day of reckoning, make sure
you are in charge of both generating and then
interpreting your own metrics.

Currently only a handful of private organizations
and companies operating in the United States have
the large banks of proprietary items developed,
and calibrated, in terms of fit with their own
internal statistical profiles. Consequently, only
these organizations have the ability to produce
tests that can be used to evaluate our movement
toward the psychometrically defined goals of the
No Child Left Behind legislation. Test publishers
are essential both to ongoing test construction
and to the interpretation of the results for
nearly all of the high-stakes tests developed in
the country.

With affiliates of these same publishers also
controlling the lion's share of the textbook
market here in Texas and around the country, one
might legitimately begin to wonder how, when it
comes to the academic side of schooling (as
opposed to school financing), anyone would
continue to describe the US education system as
locally, or even publicly, controlled.

The fourth lesson Madoff teaches us is to
surround oneself with true believers. Reputations
have to be on the line and this will make coming
to grips with what is really going on that much
harder. Some have speculated that even Bernie
Madoff, at some early point, might have believed
in his own seeming successes.

Those of us deeply involved in reforming science
and mathematics education, and who might have
once wanted to believe in the potential of
testing as a blunt but perhaps necessary
instrument of reform, are now forced to come to
grips with the full implications of the tests
being "insensitive to instruction" in a way that
vastly diminishes the role they can hope to have
as instruments of reform. We were wrong to help
sell the idea of placing so much trust in
institutions that, in retrospect, stood to
benefit the most monetarily from our continued
willingness to suspend disbelief.

Our professional reputations are indeed on the
line, making this the toughest lesson the
collapse of the Bernie Madoff empire may have to
teach. We hope the new administration can learn
from our mistakes well before belief in public
education's ability to serve the purposes of a
just, economically robust and democratic society
is lost.

Walter M. Stroup is an associate professor of
curriculum and instruction, an Elizabeth G. Gibb
Fellow, and the chair of the science, technology,
engineering, and mathematics education graduate
studies committee at the University of Texas at

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