Marc Tucker recently published a position paper arguing that our current system of test-based accountability, testing every student every year in grades 3-8, has failed and that we need a new approach. His approach, as Anthony Cody argued, would test at transition points but would still have high stakes and would test more subjects. Tucker wrote a post criticizing Cody and me and arguing that high-stakes testing is necessary to raise test scores and improve education.

Yong Zhao here weighs in with a brilliant response to Tucker, sharply disagreeing with him on the value of high-stakes testing.

Zhao points to Tucker’s inconsistency thus:

“Why does one who condemns test-based accountability system so much want more test-based accountability? The inconsistency exemplified by Marc Tucker does not make sense to me at all. Yet it is widespread so it must make sense in some way. I try to put myself in the shoes of Tucker and other similarly minded people and learned the chain of reasoning underlying their inconsistency:

“Premise #1: Education quality matters to individual and national prosperity.

“Premise #2: Education is a top-down process through which students are instilled the prescribed content and skills (curriculum) deemed universally valuable by some sort of authority.

“Premise #3: Teachers and schools are responsible for the quality of education, i.e., instilling in students the prescribed knowledge and skills.

“Premise #4: How well students master the prescribed knowledge and content is measured by tests.

“Conclusion #1: Thus test scores measure the quality of education, and thus the capacity for individuals and nations to be economically prosperous.

“Conclusion #2: American students have lower test scores on some international tests, thus American schools offer a lower quality education than countries with higher test scores.

“Conclusion #3: Therefore, American teachers must be less effective than their counterparts in other countries.

“Conclusion #4: Therefore, to prepare Americans to succeed in the global economy, American teachers and schools must be held accountable for improving the quality of education, which is to raise test scores (Tucker’s goal: “the only acceptable target for the United States is to be among the top ten performers in the world” [I assume top 10 on the PISA league table]).

“Conclusion #5: Hence we must improve the test-based accountability system, which then leads to higher quality education, which then leads to economic prosperity.

“Bait and Switch

“Marc Tucker’s objection to Anthony Cody’s questioning his assertion that “the economic future of our students will only be guaranteed if we educate them better” is a standard bait-and-switch tactic, playing with the afore-mentioned logic. It starts with the premises. Education is a term that has a positive connotation, but in practice it has many different, sometimes, contradictory, incarnations, in the same way the word “democracy” is used in reality. For example, some of the worst dictatorial countries claim to be democratic. Thus whether education matters to the prosperity of individuals and nations depends entirely on what it means.

He concludes:

“When economies change, as Tucker notes, so fast and on a global scale, it has become even more difficult to predict the skills and knowledge that matters in the future. But one thing seems to be clear. Even if Americans are equipped with the same skills and knowledge as Chinese and Indians, America’s favorite competitors, Americans won’t have an economic advantage simply because it costs much less for these countries to develop the same skills. So more of the same skills and knowledge won’t work, neither will the same education. America does not need a quantitatively better education, it needs a different kind of education.

“There are of course other problems with Tucker’s chain of reasoning; for example, are American teachers truly worse educators than their counterparts in other countries? Again it depends on the definition of education. Is education about test scores? Or is it about cultivating diverse, creative, passionate, and curious innovators and entrepreneurs?

“Tucker has much faith in this plan. “We know this form of accountability will work because it is already working at a national scale in the countries that are outperforming us.” Even if Tucker were right, America will at best outperform the top performing country—China. But is that what we want? My answer is NO and my reasons are in my book ‘Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Dragon: Why China Has the Best (and Worst) Education System in the World.'”