President's Corner

A Risky Fix to Test-Score Worship


Major league baseball managers today are armed with statistics about every aspect of the performance of every player. The managers consult this assessment data before they make most of their decisions.

ome of these managers have been successful. None of them, however, has been as successful as Casey Stengle, who managed the New York Yankees to nine league championships and seven world championships in 12 years. He never had any statistical information. In fact, Casey would not have known what to do with statistics.


Casey based his decisions on his many years of experience actually playing baseball. He knew who to play and what to do in given situations because he could tell by observation who would be successful. He also knew that athletic performance is too complex an activity to be reduced solely to numbers.

Often, his decisions went against what the assessment data would have told him to do. He picked players who had hit few home runs to pinch hit in crucial situations, and the players hit home runs. He picked pitchers whose statistics were mediocre to pitch in decisive World Series situations, and those pitchers would win.

As school system leaders, we are given a plethora of statistics that purport to show how much our students have learned. Often, those statistics are provided by people who have little direct experience with the instructional process. Even more often, those who take these statistics and make public judgments about our performance have neither any experience with nor any formal training in how to teach.

Many of us anoint this approach by defining success and failure almost exclusively in terms of test scores. This is unfortunate because we know better. We know that academic performance is too complex to be reduced solely to numbers.

We do this because it makes it easy for us to explain and defend what we are doing. After all, who can argue against the test scores?

There is an answer to that question. We ourselves know that scores are misleading. We know that we have to get beyond the scores and look at the work that students are actually doing in school. We know that knowledgeable and experienced educators can observe student performance and make accurate judgments regarding whether standards have been met. In other words, we know that authentic assessment can be done, we know how to do it and we know how to relate that assessment to high standards.

It is not pleasant for us to be in a situation where what we know to be true and what we proclaim to be true are noticeably different. Our problem is that getting ourselves out of this fix requires us to take some risks. We become vulnerable to criticism when we tell a skeptical public that we do indeed hold our students and ourselves accountable for meeting high standards but that it takes more than test scores to determine whether those standards have been met.

What we should do is obvious. Convincing ourselves to do it might be difficult. We could find the courage we need by realizing that nobody today remembers any of Casey Stengle’s critics even though they were heard loud and clear whenever he made a decision that went against the numbers.

Do we want to be remembered as people who were fashionable for our time but wrong in the long run, or as people who based their positions on the truth and had the courage to maintain those positions regardless of the degree and frequency of criticism those positions evoked?