Higher Ponytails (And Researcher-Made Measures)

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Some time ago, I coached my daughter’s fifth grade basketball team. I knew next to nothing about basketball (my sport was…well, chess), but fortunately my research assistant, Holly Roback, eagerly volunteered. She’d played basketball in college, so our girls got outstanding coaching. However, they got whammed. My assistant coach explained it after another disastrous game, “The other team’s ponytails were just higher than ours.” Basically, our girls were terrific at ball handling and free shots, but they came up short in the height department.

Now imagine that in addition to being our team’s coach I was also the league’s commissioner. Imagine that I changed the rules. From now on, lay-ups and jump shots were abolished, and the ball had to be passed three times from player to player before a team could score.

My new rules could be fairly and consistently enforced, but their entire effect would be to diminish the importance of height and enhance the importance of ball handling and set shots.

Of course, I could never get away with this. Every fifth grader, not to mention their parents and coaches, would immediately understand that my rule changes unfairly favored my own team, and disadvantaged theirs (at least the ones with the higher ponytails).

This blog is not about basketball, of course. It is about researcher-made measures or developer-made measures. (I’m using “researcher-made” to refer to both). I’ve been writing a lot about such measures in various blogs on the What Works Clearinghouse (https://wordpress.com/post/robertslavinsblog.wordpress.com/795 and https://wordpress.com/post/robertslavinsblog.wordpress.com/792).

The reason I’m writing again about this topic is that I’ve gotten some criticism for my criticism of researcher-made measures, and I wanted to respond to these concerns.

First, here is my case, simply put. Measures made by researchers or developers are likely to favor whatever content was taught in the experimental group. I’m not in any way suggesting that researchers or developers are deliberately making measures to favor the experimental group. However, it usually works out that way. If the program teaches unusual content, no matter how laudable that content may be, and the control group never saw that content, then the potential for bias is obvious. If the experimental group was taught on computers and control group was not, and the test was given on a computer, the bias is obvious. If the experimental treatment emphasized certain vocabulary, and the control group did not, then a test of those particular words has obvious bias. If a math program spends a lot of time teaching students to do mental rotations of shapes, and the control treatment never did such exercises, a test that includes mental rotations is obviously biased. In our BEE full-scale reviews of pre-K to 12 reading, math, and science programs, available at www.bestevidence.org, we have long excluded such measures, calling them “treatment-inherent.” The WWC calls such measures “over-aligned,” and says it excludes them.

However, the problem turns out to be much deeper. In a 2016 article in the Educational Researcher, Alan Cheung and I tested outcomes from all 645 studies in the BEE achievement reviews, and found that even after excluding treatment-inherent measures, measures from studies that were made by researchers or developers had effect sizes that were far higher than those for measures not made by researchers or developers, by a ratio of two to one (effect sizes =+0.40 for researcher-made measures, +0.20 for independent measures). Graduate student Marta Pellegrini more recently analyzed data from all WWC reading and math studies. The ratio among WWC studies was 2.7 to 1 (effect sizes = +0.52 for researcher-made measures, +0.19 for independent ones). Again, the WWC was supposed to have already removed overaligned studies, all of which (I’d assume) were also researcher-made.

Some of my critics argue that because the WWC already excludes overaligned measures, they have already taken care of the problem. But if that were true, there would not be a ratio of 2.7 to 1 in effect sizes between researcher-made and independent measures, after removing measures considered by the WWC to be overaligned.

Other critics express concern that my analyses (of bias due to researcher-made measures) have only involved reading, math, and science measures, and the situation might be different for measures of social-emotional outcomes, for example, where appropriate measures may not exist.

I will admit that in areas other than achievement the issues are different, and I’ve written about them. So I’ll be happy to limit the simple version of “no researcher-made measures” to achievement measures. The problems of measuring social- emotional outcomes fairly are far more complex, and for another day.

Other critics express concern that even on achievement measures, there are situations in which appropriate measures don’t exist. That may be so, but in policy-oriented reviews such as the WWC or Evidence for ESSA, it’s hard to imagine that there would be no existing measures of reading, writing, math, science, or other achievement outcomes. An achievement objective so rarified that it has never been measured is probably not particularly relevant for policy or practice.

The WWC is not an academic journal, and it is not primarily intended for academics. If a researcher needs to develop a new measure to test a question of theoretical interest, they should do so by all means. But the findings from that measure should not be accepted or reported by the WWC, even if a journal might accept it.

Another version of this criticism is that researchers often have a strong argument that the program they are evaluating emphasizes standards that should be taught to all students, but are not. Therefore, enhanced performance on a (researcher-made) measure of the better standard is prima facie evidence of a positive program impact. This argument confuses the purpose of experimental evaluations with the purpose of standards. Standards exist to express what we want students to know and be able to do. Arguing for a given standard involves considerations of the needs of the economy, standards of other states or countries, norms of the profession, technological or social developments, and so on—but not comparisons of experimental groups scoring well on tests of a new proposed standard to control groups never exposed to content relating to that standard. It’s just not fair.

To get back to basketball, I could have argued that the rules should be changed to emphasize ball handling and reduce the importance of height. Perhaps this would be a good idea, for all I know. But what I could not do was change the rules to benefit my team. In the same way, researchers cannot make their own measures and then celebrate higher scores on them as indicating higher or better standards. As any fifth grader could tell you, advocating for better rules is fine, but changing the rules in the middle of the season is wrong.

This blog was developed with support from the Laura and John Arnold Foundation. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of the Foundation.

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