The decision by Japan’s education ministry to make public the average scores of annual nationwide achievement tests on a prefecture-to-prefecture basis will have consequences that threaten educational quality. At least that’s the lesson to be learned from Los Angeles.

Ever since the accountability movement began in California 14 years ago, public schools in the state have published their Academic Performance Index. This index distilled standardized test scores into a single number. It’s the rough equivalent of an average score.

But because the API did not take into account graduation and attendance rates or consider science, history, the arts and physical education, it has wisely been put on hold for a couple of years while California introduces the Common Core standards.

Even before that happened, however, the Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation’s second largest, took the next step and attempted to publish the names of teachers in connection with their performance ratings.

The district justified its decision by explaining that parents have the right to know which teachers their children are assigned to. The Los Angeles Times agreed, and sued for access under the California Public Records Act.

In April, a three-judge state appellate court panel dismissed the suit. It ruled that disclosing the names of teachers tied to their test scores adds little, if anything, to illustrate how the school district was performing its duty.

Japan now faces a similar possibility if it goes forward with releasing the average test scores of individual public schools. Pressure will soon unavoidably mount to publish the scores of individual teachers by name. It’s a slippery slope that is given short shrift.

The argument for total transparency has great intuitive appeal. But Finland, which is known for having the world’s best schools, has never bought into the strategy. Instead, Finland selects about 100 public schools at random each year for testing. The results of the standardized tests administered are never made public, nor are the names of teachers.

Finland uses the results strictly for diagnostic purposes. The Finns would be aghast at the thought of revealing the names of teachers alongside their students’ test scores. It’s the antithesis of professionalism in a country that takes enormous pride in its schools and its teachers.

If Japan won’t learn from Los Angeles and Finland, it will eventually run head on into another controversy. It’s the classical economic dilemma known as the sunk-cost effect. Once a project costing millions of yen has begun, the tendency is to stick with it even though the results are disappointing.

Standardized testing on the scale that Japan and other countries have made policy falls into that category. It’s hard to walk away from because of the stakes involved and the reputation of those connected with the project.

Data certainly matter. But they have to be interpreted correctly if they are to be more than punitive. What the education ministry is recommending is unlikely to meet that requirement.

Walt Gardner’s Reality Check blog is published in Education Week in the U.S.

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