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To understand why I’m posting this, see the last post. I wrote this as a reflection paper for a class on Measurement & Evaluation. It’s a debate from Phi Delta Kappan between Gerald Bracey and James Popham on whether Measurement Driven Instruction (MDI) is a good thing or a bad thing. Gerald Bracey argues against MDI, Popham the opposite. Although Popham has since changed his beliefs to being against MDI, I am still persuaded by his original arguments.
James Popham and Gerald Bracey on Measurement-Driven Instruction
Measurement-driven instruction is an educational idea which has sparked intense debate. The debate is so polarized that people can’t even agree on an adequate definition for what measurement-driven instruction (MDI) means. This can be seen with the two articles selected for this essay. James Popham says that MDI occurs when a high stakes standardized test influences a teacher’s instructional program in order to prepare students for the test (Popham, 1987, p. 680). Gerald Bracey sees the definitions provided by MDI proponents as being so vague as to cause confusion. Bracey cannot even provide a conclusive definition, only “general considerations,” (Bracey, 1987, p. 684). Given how important MDI has become in the United States since the No Child Left Behind legislation, this paper will summarize and examine what James Popham and Gerald Bracey have written on MDI in order to see whether it is a blessing or a curse.
Popham begins his work by noting that there are numerous ways of improving the quality of public education. The problem is that many are too expensive. He believes that measurement-driven instruction is the most “cost-effective way” of bettering the education system (Popham, 1987, p. 679). Popham is careful to note that MDI can be a positive influence on public education, but it must be appropriately put into practice. Popham believes that in order for MDI to work five criteria must be put in place. These are: 1) criterion referenced tests instead of norm referenced tests should be used; 2) tests must assess defensible content and proficiencies; 3) tests must have a manageable number of assessment targets (around five to ten); 4) tests should function as vehicles to improve teaching; 5) educators must receive adequate teaching support (Popham, 1987, p. 680). After showing that MDI is needed, Popham spends considerable time evaluating arguments against MDI. He concludes they do not obtain. In Popham’s opinion, MDI opponents must show that MDI is so bad that it is far more likely to have negative consequences than positive consequences (Popham, 1987, p. 681). Popham concludes by noting that use of MDI does seem to be correlated with an increase in student achievement. Not only have basic skills been increased, but in some areas the black-white achievement gap has decreased (Popham, 1987, p. 682).
Contrary to Popham, Bracey asserts that MDI has numerous negative effects. He is careful to admit that there is nothing in principle that requires MDI to cause negative results, but in practice it always seems to do so (Bracey, 1987, p. 684). Bracey believes that instruction is already fragmented and MDI will only serve to increase this fragmentation (Bracey, 1987, p. 684). He also believes that MDI deflects curriculum away from its intended purposes. This can be seen when MDI focuses on the development of unconnected skills. When working with this framework, teachers tend to not teach for transfer. Most notably, an overemphasis is placed on academic talent to the detriment of people who possess other talents (Bracey, 1987, pp. 684-5). Bracey also sees MDI leading to a trivialization of curriculum. There tends to be a trend of insignificant objectives for assessment, and assessment itself (the majority of MDI tests are measured by multiple choice questions). In response to rising test scores, Bracey argues that the fact that test scores are rising does not mean that MDI is good for the education system. Bracey points out that learning answers to a test does not necessarily indicate understanding. He also notes that increased test scores may simply be the result of the incredible pressure students are under given the anxious environment high stakes testing has created in the classroom and in society (Bracey, 1987, p. 686).
Ultimately, Popham had the better argument in this article exchange. This may not necessarily be due to the strength of the MDI position, but may instead be due to how poorly Bracey argued for his position. What is clear is that something needs to be done about the American education system given dismal performance results when compared with both European and Asian countries. There is no excuse for this given that the U.S. is currently the most powerful and wealthiest nation in the world. It is encouraging to see Popham note that MDI seems to be accomplishing some good (i.e., increased proficiency in basic skills and a narrowing of the black-white achievement gap). When Bracey challenged this assertion he did so inadequately. Bracey responds by noting that learning answers does not necessarily imply understanding. But, learning answers is much better than both not knowing the answers and not understanding the answers, which were the impetus for the MDI reform movement in the first place. Secondly, it is possible for educators to use MDI and teach in such a way as to help students learn answers and understand them. I fail to see Bracey’s point that increased test scores may be the result of pressure placed on students. Does that not indicate in some sense that MDI has obtained a favorable result? Are students then not learning due to the pressure that MDI has placed on them?
Perhaps one of the most frustrating problems with Bracey’s article is that the versions of MDI he is attacking seem to not meet the five criteria Popham cited are necessary for MDI to be successful. Bracey’s case would have been much stronger if he had used examples that met Popham’s five criteria, and yet were still seriously deficient. Bracey does make a good point that MDI’s tend to predominantly use multiple choice for assessment, but he fails to recognize that many states combine multiple choice, short answer, and essay questions for their statewide exams (i.e., the New York State high school regents’ history exam). The most glaring problem with Bracey’s position is he provides no feasible alternatives to MDI. Borrowing from the work of Boyer and Gardner, Bracey suggests that writing essays and doing projects might serve as better assessments. This is hardly persuasive because as mentioned before, MDI does include essay writing. Also, just because a classroom uses MDI does not mean that projects and essays cannot be used for assessment. In fact, if projects and essays are of any real worth one would think that they would positively influence standardized test scores. At the end of the day, it appears that Popham’s case is strong enough to withstand Bracey’s assault.
Bracey, G.W. (1987). Measurement-driven instruction: Catchy phrase, dangerous practice. Phi Delta Kappan, 683-686.
Popham, W.J. (1987). The merits of measurement-driven instruction. Phi Delta Kappan, 679-682.
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