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
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.")