Many of us on this blog criticize economists because it often seems that the only thing they value is scores on standardized tests. If they can’t measure a thing without precision, it doesn’t matter. They think they can measure teacher quality by student test scores, they can measure schools by test scores, they can measure students with test scores. As Daniel Koretz showed in his book The Testing Charade: Pretending to Improve Schools, the tests are misused and abused to make these judgments. They aren’t good enough to label students, teachers, or schools, and their misuse distorts the measures (Campbell’s Law).

Now a group of scholars seeks to rescue schools from the iron grip of standardized testing. (Among the authors is my favorite economist of education, Helen Ladd of Duke University.) They argue that test scores are not the only things that matter in education. They say that schools should be informed by evidence, not driven by it. 

Decisions should be driven by what we value, what our goals are, not simply by test scores.

They write:

Although evidence clearly contributes to thoughtful policy-making, evidence cannot and should not drive policy decisions. When we make decisions, or policies, we are driven by a desire to achieve a set of goals. The role of data is to provide evidence on how our choices are likely to affect the realization of our goals. Evidence informs decisions so that, if the evidence is good and we interpret it well, the results of our decisions align better with what we value.

A challenge for many decision makers is to think clearly about the values they are seeking to realize. In education, decision makers are often motivated by the desire to improve student outcomes and increase educational equity. Yet both “student outcomes” and “equity” are vague terms. Which student outcomes, or combination of outcomes, are most valuable? Do we care about students’ understanding of trigonometry or their ability to run fast? Do we want to work towards all students having more equal cognitive skills or to increasing the skills of the least well off? Without more precise understandings of which outcomes we care about and which distributions of those outcomes are fair, decision makers lack orientation. Their decisions may end up relying on data about outcomes that happen to be available rather than about outcomes that align with their goals.

In a new book, Educational Goods: Values, Evidence, and Decision-Making (University of Chicago Press, 2018), we seek to spell out a set of educational values and distributive principles and to illustrate how they, along with a small number of non-education values, can be combined with the relevant evidence to improve education decision making. Two of us (Ladd and Loeb) are social scientists who bring a familiarity with the use of evidence, and two (Brighouse and Swift) are philosophers who operate in the realm of values.

This group of scholars is thinking differently. For example:

While educational goods and their distribution are central to education policy decisions, other values come into play as well. While it may at first seem like these additional values are too numerous and ill-defined to specify, in fact, only a small set of values—we identify five of them—typically come into play in education decision making. Think again of the possibility that equalizing educational goods would require extensive intervention in the family. Respect for parents’ interests limits the pursuit of distributive goals. Think of another independent value – what we term childhood goods. Childhood goods are the experiences that students have in childhood that contribute to their flourishing even if they do not build their capacities. These goods may include purposeless play, as well as the joys of learning or laughing. We may be unwilling to undertake an educational approach that develops students’ educational goods if it, in turn, makes the students miserable in the process. The other independent values—respect for the democratic process, freedom of residence and occupation, and other goods (e.g. heath care or housing)—may also put a brake on what should be done to pursue educational goods and their valuable distribution.