Walking Away From High Stakes Tests, A Noble Lie

From Wikipedia: A noble lie is a myth or untruth, told by an elite to maintain social harmony or to advance an agenda. The noble lie is a concept originated by Plato as described in the Republic. Plato presented the noble lie in a fictional tale— Socrates provides the origin of the three social classes who compose the republic proposed by Plato:

. . . the earth, as being their mother, delivered them, and now, as if their land were their mother and their nurse, they ought to take thought for her and defend her against any attack, and regard the other citizens as their brothers and children of the self-same earth. . . While all of you, in the city, are brothers, we will say in our tale, yet god, in fashioning those of you who are fitted to hold rule, mingled gold in their generation, for which reason they are the most precious — but in the helpers, silver, and iron and brass in the farmers and other craftsmen. And, as you are all akin, though for the most part you will breed after your kinds, it may sometimes happen that a golden father would beget a silver son, and that a golden offspring would come from a silver sire, and that the rest would, in like manner, be born of one another. So that the first and chief injunction that the god lays upon the rulers is that of nothing else are they to be such careful guardians, and so intently observant as of the intermixture of these metals in the souls of their offspring, and if sons are born to them with an infusion of brass or iron they shall by no means give way to pity in their treatment of them, but shall assign to each the status due to his nature and thrust them out among the artisans or the farmers. And again, if from these there is born a son with unexpected gold or silver in his composition they shall honor such and bid them go up higher, some to the office of guardian, some to the assistanceship, alleging that there is an oracle that the city shall then be overthrown when the man of iron or brass is its guardian.

High-stakes tests are a noble lie. (See all of CI’s posts on high-stakes testing here)

mentioned on Cloaking Inequity an academic paper about NAEP testing pre and post-NCLB by Sean Reardon, a Stanford Professor, presented at an Accountability conference in Rome a few months ago. He found our national NAEP improvement was more rapid prior to the implementation of NCLB. Furthermore, high-stakes tests have only inched us towards closing the achievement gap. At the rate of nationwide improvement we have seen over the past decade on the NAEP and state-mandated criterion-referenced tests, he found it will take us 80 more years to close the achievement gap. Remember with much ado that Bush and Kennedy said the achievement gaps would be closed by NCLB in 2014? It will not happen. What was Texas’, the birthplace of NCLB, response to this failure? We have tripled down on high-stakes exams. For example, we now require 15 exams to graduate from high school— the most in the nation.

You might be thinking to yourself, but we need high-stakes exams because they will magically create equity in K-12. We believe this because politicians have been telling us this noble lie for three decades in Texas. Have we?

Ever wonder why Texas has to tell another noble lie about graduation/dropout rates? Why certain folks argue “that money doesn’t matter” in the school finance debate? Why parent trigger legislation is not actually pushed by parents, but by corporate/neoliberal interests? Why ~80% Teach For America teachers only stay two years and perpetuate a revolving door of unqualified teachers for Black, Brown and poor white students? Because current educational policy “reforms” are not being created to foment equity or social justice, they are designed to create stratification—gold, silver, brass, and iron— or  in the words of NCLB: “Far Below Basic,” “Below Basic,” “Basic,” “Proficient,” and “Advanced.

High-stakes tests are like a stalker, a bad relationship, or a bad investment— all failures in judgement. Can we look ourselves i n the mirror and move on?

The Atlantic recently published an article entitled How to Walk Away:

Most of us know what it’s like to stay in a job or a relationship after it’s stopped being satisfying, or to take on a project that’s too big and be reluctant to admit it. CEOs have been known to allocate manpower and money to projects long after it becomes clear that they are failing. Think of JP Morgan’s “London Whale” Bruno Iksil, who doubled down on a losing bet rather than admit his losses and ultimately cost the bank over six billion dollars. Similarly there was John Edwards, who couldn’t bring himself to end his losing bid for the presidency even after his mistress became pregnant.


There are several powerful, largely unconscious psychological forces at work. We may throw good money after bad or waste time in a dead-end relationship because we haven’t come up with an alternative; or because we don’t want to admit to our friends and family, or to ourselves, that we were wrong. But the most likely culprit is this innate, overwhelming aversion to sunk costs.

Sunk costs are the investments that you’ve put into something that you can’t get back out. They are the years you spent training for a profession you hate, or waiting for your commitment-phobic boyfriend to propose. They are the thousands of dollars you spent on redecorating your living room, only to find that you hate living in it. Once you’ve realized that you probably won’t succeed, or that you are unhappy with the results, it shouldn’t matter how much time and effort you’ve already put into something. If your job or your boyfriend have taken up some of the best years of your life, it doesn’t make sense to let them use up the years you’ve got left. An ugly living room is an ugly living room, no matter how much money you spent making it so.


As studies by behavioral economists like Daniel Kahnemen and Dan Ariely show, people are generally loss-averse. Putting in a lot, only to end up with nothing to show for it, is just too awful for most of us to seriously consider. The problem is one of focus. We worry far too much about what we’ll lose if we just move on, instead of focusing on the costs of not moving on: more wasted time and effort, more unhappiness, and more missed opportunities.

It is time to dump the stalker, the bad investment, the ugly living room, and realize that high-stakes testing and accountability have not delivered (and a growing list of corporate reforms)— and they wont. Unless merit apartheid is a desirable outcome. The Atlantic concluded:

When we see our goals in terms of what we can gain, rather than what we might lose, we are more likely to see a doomed endeavor for what it is.

We need to get over our failure, and realize it is time to move beyond our high-stakes testing sunk costs to broader multiple measure understandings of our educational system that are community-driven and benchmark the approaches of countries that have actually improved their education system over the past two decades.

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