Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Validity and Accountability in High-Stakes Testing

Academic journal article Journal of Teacher Education

Validity and Accountability in High-Stakes Testing

Article excerpt

In this article, the authors argue that the cultures of accountability and validity are at odds. Calls for accountability arise from the polis, or political community. Validity is the standard of quality that professionals place on tests. When the polis demands that tests serve high-stakes accountability functions, professional testing standards often are compromised. In accountability contexts, test results decide which students are retained in grade, held back from graduation, and assigned to tracks or special classifications. Yet, empirical evidence suggests that the use of flawed indicators produces unreliable and unrepresentative inferences and decisions. High-stakes testing produces teaching and testing practices that lead to inflated test scores and further disadvantage already disadvantaged students.

The words validity and accountability rarely occur in the same sentence.(1) Educators should not be surprised by this. Accountability is part of the lexicon of politics and institutions. Validity is the province of psychometrics, the science and practice of mental testing.

Accountability is a concept that glosses political and institutional arrangements and exchanges. One person is said to be accountable to another person or entity by virtue of the roles each plays in an institution or polity and accountable for certain actions or accomplishments as demonstrated by some indicator. A hospital nurse is accountable to a hospital where he or she works for the quality and efficiency of services he or she provides as demonstrated by, for example, some index of patient well-being. Nurses are also accountable to patients and to the profession of nursing, which illustrates how the network of accountability relationships can be complicated. A company president is accountable to the board of directors for profitable operations as demonstrated by the bottom line. School district superintendents are accountable to their boards of education, taxpayers, students, and others for maintaining effective schools.

Perhaps validity and accountability are seldom heard together because the speakers of each live in different cultures, with conflicting assumptions, goals, and activities.(2) Those who are concerned about accountability live in the polis, which Deborah Stone (1997) describes as a political community. Those concerned with validity reside in the "rational actor" world (Stone, 1997). Picture the psychometricians around the table. Their conversation is rational, their reasoning based on empirical evidence. It is a world in which technical expertise matters, where professional and disciplinary knowledge sways the outcome of deliberation. They calmly discuss whether the pattern of correlation on their printouts warrants an endorsement of the test's validity. They refer to the standards of their profession and to peer review of their empirical findings. Such work takes time, and they are willing to proceed with care, deliberation, and a concern for fairness. They weigh the possible costs and benefits of their actions.

Now picture the polis. The actors engage with each other to change the distribution of power. They negotiate among interest groups, build alliances, employ tactics, and construct and deploy symbols (Edelman, 1985). Their world comprises advocates, adversaries, competition, and rhetoric. In Stone's (1997) words,

   A model of political reason ought to account for the possibilities of
   changing one's objectives, of pursuing contradictory objectives
   simultaneously, of winning by appearing to lose, and turning loss into an
   appearance of victory, and most unusual, of attaining objectives by
   portraying oneself as having attained them [italics added].(p. 9)

Imagine high-stakes testing policy in the polis. In a backroom, some people are whispering in each others' ears, talking on cell phones to their constituents, or passionately banging their fists on the table as they discuss the failure of schools and its consequences for the local economy. …

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