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June 17, 2003

educational standards and deliberation

Standards and testing are hugely important in k-12 education these days. Meanwhile, many people who are interested in improving American democracy would like to make it more "deliberative." In a deliberative democracy, the public would rule on the basis of one person, one vote, but with as much informed discussion as possible before any vote.

Educational standards can be beneficial for deliberative democracy. They are public statements of expectations for students and schools, issued by accountable democratic bodies, and subject to debate. Standards can be good or bad for education (depending on what they contain), but they seem completely compatible with public deliberation and popular sovereignty. Testing, on the other hand, is problematic from this perspective. Tests must be designed by small groups in private. They can't be public documents and still function well as assessments. The designers of tests tend to be specialists, since designing good instruments is a difficult, technical task. Thus experts have considerable power and are held accountable to professional or technical norms, rather than public judgment.

The risk of tests for deliberative democracy is clearest in the case of norm-referenced exams (such as the SAT). To design a norm-referenced test, experts write possible test questions almost randomly and try them out on small samples of students. For the actual test, they retain those trial questions that statistically correlated with past questions asked on the same test (i.e., those questions that the high-scorers tend to answer correctly). This is a strictly technical approach that appears to avoid any judgments about what is important to learn. But of course such judgments are made implicitly, since any test must assess some skills or bodies of knowledge and not others. As a result, exams like the SAT have powerful social effects, yet the public doesn't control, and cannot even debate, their content.

Such tests are bad for public deliberation. Standards are potentially good. The problem is that we often don't know how to enforce standards without tests, and unenforceable standards are not good for either education or democracy.

(By the way, I have been asked to announce: "After a mini cyber-disaster, Amitai Etzioni Notes is back up and running.")

Posted by peterlevine at June 17, 2003 03:18 PM


High standards is a meaningless idea. The key idea in standards is judgement. Who makes the judgement and against what ideas.
Standards can be norm referenced or idiosyncratic.
Learning anything is complex so that any testing regime will only be able to concern some knowledge.
Those opposed to standards are often concerned about these questions, whose ideas are valid, what knowlede counts, how are the results used, and what are the unintended consequences

Posted by: JOCE JESSON at August 18, 2004 10:51 PM

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