from the publisher:Beware the beguiling idea

A little over 20 years ago, President Ronald Reagan managed to bluff the Soviet Union into abandoning the Cold War and snapping the lights off on the Evil Empire. This remarkable turn of events came thanks, in no small part, to an elaborate fiction–the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI).

Based on the appearance of science, a general gullibility, and convoys of cash, Star Wars–the Hollywood-inspired moniker for SDI and its plan to mount an impenetrable missile defense in space–ultimately led the old guard in the Kremlin to give up the ghost.

What on earth, you might be asking yourself, does the 1980s Star Wars initiative have to do with contemporary education?

Well, a recollection of that out-of-this-world chimera rockets to mind as I mull the scheme just announced by the U.S. Department of Education (ED). I refer to the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) data-management tool. That bold initiative is set to launch in January, and you can read all about it in our Front Page story by Associate Editor Cara Branigan.

Far more modest in scope than SDI (priced at a mere $51 million so far), this proposed tool nonetheless seems reminiscent to me of the Star Wars initiative on at least four counts.

It offers an appearance of science. It comes with ambitious predictions of extravagant feats. It seems plausible to the gullible. And it certainly won’t work. At least, it won’t do the wondrous things its proponents promise.

Just consider some of the hype. This tool, according to ED, will reveal how much student achievement is earned per dollar spent; it will monitor the progress of an individual school; it will even predict how a school will compare to Adequate Yearly Progress benchmarks, given consistent practices, by the year 2014!

SDI had just one problem. It didn’t work. The space-based armaments couldn’t hit incoming missiles. (Neither could Star Wars stop low-level missile attacks from submarines or airplanes.) But, by George, what a beguiling idea! The Soviets bought it–and, oh, how we longed to huddle safe from the reign of nuclear terror under that marvelous high-tech umbrella.

ED’s data-management tool–for all its impressive trappings–has one problem, too. Test scores simply aren’t the infallible barometer of education achievement. You can’t add up a column of test scores and determine with much certainty whether a student is learning or a school is progressing.

I know this might seem like heresy in the NCLB era, but there it is. It’s the unavoidable fallacy underlying the entire edifice surrounding our general approach to education these days–and this latest multi-million-dollar data-management tool is likely only to compound it.

Yes, it sure would be handy if test scores really told the story on education, but as you well know, it’s more complicated than that. You might get a picture of some kind using a paint-by-the-numbers kit, but you’ll never prove your artistry if that’s your technique of choice.

A test score is a murky gauge at best. It might tell you something, but not a lot, and certainly not the entire tale. Consequently, slicing and dicing test scores across attendance boundaries, from state to state, from coast to coast–even at warp speed and in massive quantities–just won’t tell us all we need to know, and it might turn out to be downright misleading.

Gathering data and analyzing them carefully can be a valuable activity, to be sure. Assembling and studying objective information–such as how many teachers are certified in the subjects they’re teaching–can be highly informative and can guide prescriptive action. I’m quite aware that ED’s data-management tool could serve up some of that sort information, too. But, in the last analysis, the bedrock supporting this highly touted tool will be the test score.

In the 1980s, letting our adversaries overestimate the impact of SDI ultimately had a beneficial outcome. But in this decade, in education–no matter what some in the Bush Administration think of the NEA–there really is no Evil Empire. So, in this case, we’ll be fooling only ourselves.

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