Monday, December 20, 2010

The dull life of a test grader

I found myself more sympathetic to this lonely rant from someone who makes money grading the written bits of standardized tests than I expected to be.

But, and there are a lot of buts in this case, I have some issues:

1. First, it is more important that people learn to read, write functional sentences and paragraphs and do basic math than that they learn to be creative or to experience art and music. It would be nice if everyone could learn all these things, but basic literacy and numeracy have to come first. I agree with Rich Hanushek that the upside of NCLB and the broader fixation on standardized measures of basic skills of which it is both cause and effect is to actually improve literacy and numeracy at the worst public schools. It would be great to find a way to do this while wasting less time and energy at better schools.

2. If the main point of the grades is to be used in class or school level aggregates, then it is optimal not to spend too much time on each one. The measurement error will cancel out. One hopes, though this is not described, that the exams from a given class or school are distributed among many graders so that grader-specific effects average out as well.

3. Given that students receive no feedback other than a number, it is again not worth spending a lot of grader time on each exam. Detailed feedback is important for learning to write, but it should be coming from the classroom teachers.

4. If the market clears, then wages are not too low.

5. The author's obsession with the role of private firms is completely beside the point. The demand for standardized testing did not originate with the private firms, and the grading procedure would be little different, other than taking longer and costing more, if it were undertaken by government employees.

6. I was most concerned about the fact that firms are moving the average up or down at the behest of politicians obsessed with averages over time. I will now trust those average even less than I already did, which was not very much.

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