Comment on Kerrey and Leeds in WSJ

Writing in today’s Wall Street Journal, Bob Kerrey and Jeffery T. Leeds note the unintended consequences likely to follow from new higher education regulations proposed by the U.S. Department of Education. Cutting to the chase, Kerrey and Leeds’ key points (emphases added) are that:

  • “Absent innovative, competitive—and, yes, disruptive—pressure to raise quality and lower costs, all the well-intentioned federal regulation in the world will not make college more accessible.”
  • “He [Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan] should insist on real and significant disclosure. Colleges should be required to post their graduation rates, job-placement rates, the average debt of their students upon graduation, their tax status and any and all information that will enable Americans to make informed decisions when choosing a school.”
  • “The department should also work with schools and colleges to address the fundamental causes of rising tuition, and hold schools accountable for student outcomes instead of their debt.”

These are, of course, exactly the themes repeatedly raised in this blog. Measurement quality is unavoidably implicated in holding schools accountable for student outcomes, in enabling consumers to make informed purchasing decisions, and in raising quality and lowering costs.

To meet the challenges we face, measurement quality must be far more than just a matter of precision and rigor. Quality must also speak to relevance, efficiency, and meaningfulness. Recent history has brought home the lesson that annual tests used solely for accountability purposes will not enable rebalanced quality/cost equations, informed consumer decisions, or fair accountability results. But how might these disparate purposes be efficiently and meaningfully realized?

It is essential that, if teachers are to be responsible for student outcomes and for raising the overall quality of education, formative measuring tools must provide the qualitative and quantitative information they need to be able to act responsibly. The irony is, of course, that the way to overcome the problems of a purely summative focus for educational measurement is to measure more! Now, measuring more need not involve devoting more time exclusively to taking tests. Instead, computerized and online assessments are increasingly integrated into instruction so that measures are made in the course of studying (Cheng and Mok, 2007; Wilson, 2004). Measures are thereby continuously updated, and are plotted in growth charts relative to long range outcome goals.

Furthermore, the qualitative information provided by the measurement process is used to inform teachers and students about what comes next in the individualized curriculum, as well as about special strengths and weaknesses. This information has been shown to be unparalleled in its value for advancing learning in the classroom (Black and Wiliam, 1998, 2009; Hattie, 2008).

But formative assessment alone will not be sufficient to the larger tasks of raising quality and lowering costs. For that, systematic quality improvement methods in schools will need to be joined with comparable outcome measures parents and students can use to inform school choice decisions (Fisher, 2013; Lunenberg, 2010).

Kerrey and Leeds rightly seek an infrastructure capable of disruptive effects, of transforming the inflationary economy of education (and health care). To state again a recurring theme in this blog, the command and control hierarchies of regulatory systems can and should be replaced with a metrological infrastructure of common metrics with the scientific, legal, and financial status of common currencies for the exchange of value. Only when such currencies are in place will we be able to set out clear paths for the informed decisions, improved quality, lower costs, and accountability for outcomes that we seek.


Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (1998). Assessment and classroom learning. Assessment in Education, 5(1), 7-74.

Black, P., & Wiliam, D. (2009). Developing the theory of formative assessment. Educational Assessment, Evaluation and Accountability, 21, 5-31.

Cheng, Y. C., & Mok, M. M. C. (2007). School-based management and paradigm shift in education: An empirical study. International Journal of Educational Management, 21(6), 517-542.

Fisher, W. P., Jr. (2013). Imagining education tailored to assessment as, for, and of learning: Theory, standards, and quality improvement. Assessment and Learning, 2, in press.

Hattie, J. (2008). Visible learning. New York: Routledge.

Lunenberg, F. C. (2010). Total Quality Management applied to schools. Schooling, 1(1), 1-6.

Wilson, M. (Ed.). (2004). Towards coherence between classroom assessment and accountability. (Vol. 103, Part II, National Society for the Study of Education Yearbooks). Chicago, Illinois: University of Chicago Press.

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