Tuesday, September 20, 2011

On the Exetasecrats

I just coined that word--I derive it from (also my invention) exetasecracy, "rule by examination".

Jay Mathews did me the honor of quoting me in The Washington Post about a month ago, and specifically my phrase "government of the people by the highly educated for the well placed vested interests". Here I am drawing attention to the middle of those three prepositional phrases. In contemporary American civilization, a highly educated person is someone who will have taken many tests, and have done exceptionally well on them. Democrats, Republicans, talking heads supporting education reform and those opposing it, virtually all (including me) of those participating in any of our education debates, now that the Bush Administration is out of power, are exetasecrats, people who did well on tests when they were in school, and, because much of their self-validation derives from their performance on those tests, believers in their validity and usefulness.   

But this post continues (and will probably conclude, for now, since I am actually a fan of TFA, on balance) my attack on Teach For America, begun two posts back and now in its third installment. TFA, being highly selective, is filled with bright young exetasecrats who are setting up an occupational sideline in education while they are between tests (LSAT, MCAT, GMAT, exetasecrat). Having amassed two or three years in the classroom before they moved on to other jobs, possibly involving telling the rest of us how to rearrange the educational system, they are likely to be very thinly informed, from a research standpoint, on the possibilities and limitations of various assessment systems; but because they are intelligent, they are likely, especially if they did their teaching in primary schools, to recognize that even our typical substandard state tests are more defensible, from a pedagogical standpoint, than the ludicrous high jinks that their older colleagues sometimes come up with and impose upon the public (I had a colleague once, a dear lady, whose idea of an appropriate final exam for her summer school English class was an African marketplace--not that she had ever been to a real one [not much English in the one I went to]).

But when one has experience, perhaps from teaching high school or college English, in working with more rigorous and admirable testing systems (I am thinking of those from Cambridge Assessment and the International Baccalaureate, but there are others), which do not reduce the complexities of human intellectual activity in the extreme way required for American educational data systems to be of any use--the reduced, lost information and truncated discourse of the machine--then one is far less enthused by all the simplistic prattle accompanying proposals to base our children's education more and more squarely and narrowly on the very imperfect assessment instruments present in the United States; and this is what the conventional proposals of well meaning amateurs, who have made endless money from selling pseudo-thinking machines, and who believe sincerely in the power of those machines and have seen them work well in other fields and whose own self-validation has come largely in connection with those machines, amount to.

Tony Wagner of Harvard appropriately suggests, on page 268 of The Global Achievement Gap, "Instituting better assessments is the one most important change we could make tomorrow that would have the greatest impact." Howard Wainer, formerly chief statistician of the Educational Testing Service who now teaches statistics for the Wharton School, has just published, via the Princeton University Press, Uneducated Guesses, which reveals how little our exetosecrats understand about the instruments that have provided them with important boosts in their young careers and which they now promote, to the impoverishment of us all.

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