Cecil Bohanon and John Horowitz: Debasing learning measures erodes quality of education

  • Comments
  • Print

In 1976, noted psychologist Donald Campbell argued that the more organizations use a single measure to make decisions, the more organizations will try to score better on the assessment of that measure. This distorts the measure’s value and generates what he aptly called “corruption pressure.”

For example, when schools focus on students passing standardized tests, teachers teach to the test rather than focusing on students actually learning the relevant concepts. If schools’ graduation rates are the metric of school success, administrators will pressure teachers to increase grades and make classes easier to increase graduation rates.

Of course, administrators always insist they care about providing quality education, but “we have to meet the students where they are.” Administrators might also talk about or bring in experts to help teachers teach better. Still, almost all incentives are on getting students through to graduation, not letting students fail or get low grades, and assisting students so they don’t withdraw from class.

In most schools, grades have been increasing while standardized test scores are declining. Since 2015, The Every Student Succeeds Act has emphasized graduation rates and GPA, so schools have emphasized higher grades and graduation rates despite the fact that students’ standardized exam scores are decreasing slightly. Unfortunately, as students get higher grades, less-motivated students are less likely to attend school.

Recently, many colleges and universities have moved to test-optional admissions. Reformers argued that standardized tests measure only students’ test-taking ability, are unfair to students from underrepresented groups, and do not accurately predict college success. Reformers claimed that students’ high school GPAs better predict college success. However, recent studies find that “[standardized] test scores are more reliable than high school grades” in predicting college success.

Once universities stopped using tests such as the SAT and ACT and focused on high school grades, corruption pressure undoubtedly contributed to increasing high school grades. Students, parents and administrators pressure teachers to increase grades and often to make classes easier and to reduce requirements to graduate. Some schools reduced math and writing requirements.

According to recent research, the best way to determine a student’s collegiate potential is by using both test scores and high school GPAs. Putting GPAs and test scores in context is also essential, such as seeing if a low GPA is because a student went to a challenging school and seeing if the student’s SAT score is above the school’s average. Debasing measures of learning erodes the ability to provide quality education.•

__________

Bohanon and Horowitz are professors of economics at Ball State University. Send comments to ibjedit@ibj.com.

Please enable JavaScript to view this content.

Editor's note: You can comment on IBJ stories by signing in to your IBJ account. If you have not registered, please sign up for a free account now. Please note our updated comment policy that will govern how comments are moderated.

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news. ONLY $1/week Subscribe Now

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In

Get the best of Indiana business news.

Limited-time introductory offer for new subscribers

ONLY $1/week

Cancel anytime

Subscribe Now

Already a paid subscriber? Log In