Things We Read Today (18), Monday


Standardized Testing and Accountability

Through one of the many avenues by which information comes to my computer screen, I happened upon this long essay by Attleboro School Committee member Jim Stors, endeavoring to make some sense of standardized test scores for his constituents on the local Patch site.  The first thing to say is that such essays are very much what the elected officials in charge of school districts should be doing: breaking down the inside-the-system information in an effort to explain technical results to the people who ultimately have responsibility for the district’s success, and who suffer from its failure.  Not surprisingly, such essays are relatively rare.

Stors’s argument is ultimately about setting targets by which to judge results.  One question he proposes is: Are we an average community?  If the answer is “yes,” that’s fine, and the state average is a legitimate comparison.  More inflammatory, though, would be the discussion at the school-by-school level: Is that side of town average, while this side of town is best-in-the-state material?

(Readers who infer that my running for School Committee in Tiverton has localized some of my thinking, lately, would be correct… at least as far as examples go.)

But there’s a larger question following on Stors’s presentation:

I believe very strongly in accountability and the annual standardized test scores is one means by which to hold accountability.  This is why this is so important each year and is why I always want to look past the general overview and get down and dirty into the specifics. …

But before we get into any further specifics, let’s discuss this concept of standardized testing.  The purpose behind this is to have a means by which to compare one student against another student, one school against a similar school and one school district against a similar school district.  But this brings into question why every state isn’t using an identical national test.  Now I don’t want to debate the pros and cons of national standardized tests, let alone standardized testing in general, but the main point here is that MCAS is our state required test and is what we have to use, and that it is different than what other states use so you cannot compare Massachusetts to other states based solely on standardized test scores.

The problem with standardized tests is that somebody has to decide what’s on them.  To the extent that the system acknowledges the test as important, that same somebody thereby decides what schools will teach.  As that somebody moves up the scale toward the federal government, there’s increasing opportunity for mischief that imposes ideology and political agendas in a seemingly innocuous way.

The alternative to this upward pressure for standardization is a return to individual judgment.  The students, parents, and community determine whether schools are succeeding (aided, one hopes, by standardized tests), and administrators and teachers have personal responsibility for their segments of the district.  In the current practice, the buck can be passed and (as Stors notes) distorted, and the pressure is on the group imposing the standard to judge and to foot the bill.

That’s not a route toward the individualization required in education.

ObamaCare and the AARP

By now, most people paying close enough attention to be reading this have heard that Republican vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan was subjected to some booing during an AARP speech.  More specifically, his stated intention to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (PPACA; ObamaCare) was the target, and after just a few minutes of patient explanation, the audience response had turned toward applause.

That’s Grace-Marie Turner’s observation, too.  But the more important point comes from Avik Roy:

… AARP is poised to make billions thanks to Obamacare’s cuts to Medicare Advantage. As it is, the interest group makes almost twice from its Medigap royalties what it gets in membership dues. So it’s no wonder that AARP supported Medicare cuts that would be unpopular with seniors: Its own financial interests won out.

It’s sad to say, but our government has gotten so big that nearly maximum cynicism about organizations’ motivations is becoming the most reasonable mindset.  Who will protect people’s interests when all of the interest groups have been bought off?  Perhaps we’ll be reduced to forming groups to lobby the groups that are supposed to lobby the government on our behalf.

Koelsch as Contractor Compliments Koller

While we’re on the subject of big government’s inappropriate activities, specifically with reference to health care, today’s Political Scene has an interesting item about Dyana Koelsch, best known as a Lively Experiment moderator, tweeting hurrahs for RI’s Health Insurance Commissioner, Christopher Koller.  It turns out that she’s on the payroll.

… when asked, the health insurance commissioner’s office confirmed that one of the federally financed contractors it had hired with federal Affordable Care Act dollars to encourage employer involvement in rate-setting had hired Koelsch.

Spokesman Patrick Tigue said the OHIC had a $150,000 “rate review community partner contract with [the Providence Plan],” and Prov-Plan had an initial $5,000 contract with Koelsch’s firm.

He said negotiations are under way on a new $76,000 subcontract that would give Koelsch’s MAD K LLC a larger role in “message development, press secretary and media outreach activities … video production and development … [and] social media opportunities” for the Small Employer Health Insurance Task Force.

Are we so far gone, as a people, that we don’t react, anymore, to the assumption that government officials should use public dollars to hire private parties to sell their activities to the public?  Isn’t that what elected officials are supposed to be doing as part of their continuing bids for public office?

It’s bad enough that elected officials’ communication with the public is increasingly handled through professional spokespeople; now the permanent campaign is turning into a permanent marketing pitch.  And it’s all becoming a perfect illustration of the danger inherent in assigning more and more of our society’s activities to government.

I think it’s wrong to do so, but people still see government as a somewhat objective arbiter, representing the people. The urge to market itself to those people suggests that government has become more like a for-profit enterprise seeking to charm customers.

Conley in the New York Times… Indirectly

The New York Times’s token conservative columnist Ross Douthat draws on his decade of experience living in Washington, D.C., for an observation of the city’s resemblance to some popular fiction recently in the public eye:

If you don’t mind congested roads and insanely competitive child rearing, all this growth is good news for those of us inside the Beltway bubble. But is it good for America? After all, like the ruthless Capital in “The Hunger Games,” the wealth of Washington is ultimately extracted from taxpayers more than it is earned. And over the last five years especially, D.C.’s gains have coincided with the country’s losses.

There aren’t tributes from Michigan and New Mexico fighting to the death in Dupont Circle just yet. But it doesn’t seem like a sign of national health that America’s political capital is suddenly richer than our capitals of manufacturing and technology and finance, or that our leaders are more insulated than ever from the trends buffeting the people they’re supposed to serve.

If the sentiment sounds familiar, it may be because Rhode Island’s own Tea Party rouser Colleen Conley expressed it back in April:

In both capitals, inhabitants live a life of relative luxury and, judging by their actions, give little thought to the hardships of those who toil to sustain their very existence.

Instead of our elected representatives serving us, it too often seems that we live to serve them. And both political ruling classes are good at one thing: creating enmity amongst their citizenry. In Panem, it is manufactured by the Hunger Games themselves, which require children to kill children; in America, it is via the vitriol of the media and the political parties. Both succeed in taking our eyes off of the real villain — an unaccountable, oppressive government that sustains and enriches itself at our expense.