Test-based accountability has been the most enduring education policy in the last fifty years (Elmore, 2004) and continues to dominate the political policy agenda (Feuer, 2008). It is attractive in that it promises an objective, accurate, easy and economical way measure as assigns a quantitative value to the learning of students and effectiveness of teachers and schools. It is also part of a larger movement for accountability in society, especially by government and public agencies.


Ideally, each individual, profession and institution should be self-accountable to high standards and be striving continually to improve. In practice, we generally do need some external force or agency to establish, encourage and maintain acceptable standards, much like we need a police force and justice system to make individuals accountable for obeying the laws and a government to regulate the affairs of a state.


In principle, both accountability and incentives are effective and constructive tools in efforts for reform. Life itself is a series of tests for which we are held accountable and rewarded or punished based on our responses. We learn simple lessons, such as fire burns and how to get along in society, through trial and error. We make adjustments or reforms based on the informal or formal feedback we receive. However, when approaches used to determine accountability and apply incentives are faulty, decisions based on them can be destructive. For examples, if laws are unfair or are not applied fairly, the progress and order of society will deteriorate.


When what gets measured is not an accurate indication of the quality or outcome sought, pressure is exerted to focus on the indicator rather than the substance. In education, the important qualitative aspects of teaching are not easily quantified; neither are the other important aspects of learning. When the quality of learning and teaching gets reduced to a number, and when we further imagine that that number is an objective and accurate measure of education, we are deluded and have missed the most essential and important aspects of learning. However, there is a strong pressure to measure learning and to quantify objectively what each student and teacher is producing. We therefore seek to quantify using objective measurable standards, such as standardized tests. In the same way when we were determining the value of a person, we used some qualitative measures, such as race, gender, income, class, religion, nationality, weight or height, as an indicator of their value.


About rodclarken

Dr. Rodney H Clarken is professor emeritus, School of Education, Northern Michigan University.
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