Task force proposal simply doesn’t add up

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Idaho Education news reported last week that Governor Little’s K12 Education Task Force Co-Chair, Bill Gilbert, has a plan to improve Gem State education outcomes: Make the Idaho Reading Indicator scores the sole measure used in holding schools and districts “accountable” for student growth.

It’s so simple! Why have we not thought of this before? I mean, what could possibly be wrong with using just a single datapoint in order to judge the quality of a school?

Well, for starters, let’s talk about the test itself. The Idaho Department of Education’s own website cautions against using the test for the very purpose Gilbert outlines stating, “It is important to remember that the IRI is not intended to be a complete diagnostic reading test; rather, the IRI should be used to identify students in a classroom who may have additional needs in the area of reading.”

The test is not a valid indicator of students overall reading ability that Gilbert seems to think that it is. The IRI was never intended to be used to “grade” a school; it’s sole purpose is in providing timely data that teachers can use to target students needing evidence-based intervention literacy strategies before falling even further behind. But hey, when has Idaho ever listened to the experts when it comes to developing cohesive evidence-based education policy?

Further consider certain student demographics that are likely to set a school up for failure before the plan even starts: Schools with high English Language Learner populations, migrant students, high rate of free/reduced lunch programs, and special education populations will likely never be seen as a success under such a proposal as they are unlikely to ever have “good” IRI scores.

And secondary schools: you don’t matter. The proposal doesn’t care about the graduation rate. Ditto how many students took AP exams. ISAT scores don’t matter. Neither does the SAT scores our state pays millions for every student to take.

Then there’s “Goodhart’s Law” which states that “when a measure becomes a target it ceases to be a good measure.” See, here’s the problem: if schools know that the IRI is “the measure” then those IRI scores will likely increase at the expense of what employees would otherwise consider good teaching.

That means skill-and-drill all day long. No time for math intervention activities for those falling behind because reading scores are all that matter. And hey, who needs to include science, art, or other content areas in Elementary if a school is only going to be judged on the single data point of IRI scores. Ditto recess.

The proposal to only use IRI scores in accountability is akin to the rhetoric of making tax returns so simple you can do it on a postcard. As a political talking point, it’s gold.

But there’s a reason why it doesn’t happen: millions of Americans have distinctly different forms of incomes, retirements, disabilities, veteran status, family sizes, capital gains, etc. along with corresponding deductions, tax credits, and other line items that would not be served by a “one-size-fits-all” postcard approach.

And so it is for education. Taking a single data point to measure a school is an absurd approach in measuring a school’s overall performance. Yes, looking at multiple pieces of data makes the measure more “messy,” but it is also the responsible and prudent thing to do.

Levi B Cavener is a social studies teacher living in Caldwell, Idaho. He blogs at IdahosPromise.Org.

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