It’s a fairly common occurrence for me not to recognize or know how to interpret the various emojis, acronyms, and hashtags I encounter while scrolling through the latest on Taylor Swift, the local sports teams, my favorite #GBBO contestants, and a little assessment and measurement angst – iykyk, right.

The most recent case: the letters AITA, always in bold and uppercase, started appearing in posts on my social media feeds. Time to dig in and apply the science of reading.

  • The posts always describe some type of conflict or problem situation from the author’s perspective.
  • The posts are preceded, followed, or often preceded and followed, by AITA.
  • It was clear that there was an implied question, and it only took a close read of a few posts to figure out what that question was.

Wow, AITA. Score one for the internet.

Do you know how convenient it would have been to just type AITA when backchannel texting during staff or project meeting “discussions”? Alas, it seems that AITA became a thing on reddit (which is a rabbit hole I’ve yet to jump into) about the same time that I was swearing off of such meetings.

I know what you’re thinking. Charlie, dude, you’re a 64-year-old white guy who went to Harvard, that question has been asked and answered. Years ago. Multiple times. In the affirmative.

True, but context matters. Given that most of the meetings I attended included at least one other old white guy intent on dominating the conversation, there was at least a 50/50 chance that a quick text asking AITA would have received a reply of NO or elicited a thumbs down reaction.

Well, if it’s too late for me to use AITA in the way that nature and the internet intended, perhaps I can find an alternate use and meaning for the phrase that fits my current situation. After all, repurposing and repackaging is what we in assessment and accountability do best.  AITA

Assessment Is …

 My first thought was to change the original question to a statement, with “Assessment Is” replacing the two words at the start of the phrase. AITA.

I have no doubt that there are many people who would agree with that statement, particularly in reference to state testing; and I can think of a few, just off the top of my head, who would definitely agree AITA if the subject were interim assessment.

The more that I thought about it, however, the less the phrase seemed to fit assessment.

AITA – Assessment is … No, not really.

Some psychometricians, academics, and company execs I know, sure, textbook examples. A couple of them embrace the status, even revel in it. But for the others it’s just a defense mechanism to compensate for their technical inadequacies or other, shall was say, shortcomings.

However, the statement AITA just doesn’t apply to most of the people I worked with in large-scale assessment. In fact, it’s not even a good fit for large-scale assessment itself.

No, the word that comes to mind that best describes large-scale assessment is obsequious. Assessment’s problem is that it is a people pleaser.

Always trying to fit in, assessment will overpromise. Assessment is willing to be, do, or say whatever people want or need it to be, do, or say. You like me. You really like me.

Individual student scores. No problem.

Reliable, valid, fair. Check, check, check. We promise, we’ll check. 

Aligned to the depth and breadth of college-and-career-readiness standards. Piece of Cake.

Good, Fast, Cheap. You can have all three.

Fewer, deeper, higher. Sure.

Achievement Levels. How many would you like?

High stakes, medium stakes, low stakes, no stakes, tying teachers to the stake. We’ll put a stake in the ground on that.

Raw scores, scaled scores, vertical scale scores, subscores, diagnostic scores, growth scores, immediate scores. You got it.

You say scores. We say how high.

And all the while we will publish papers, fill manuals, and create websites with cautions about measurement error and the dangers of basing decisions on a single test score. Hell, as I wrote earlier this year, “To this day, decades into their use, NAEP achievement level results are still accompanied by the message, ‘NAEP achievement levels are to be used on a trial basis and should be interpreted and used with caution,’ more a wringing than a ringing endorsement.” And that’s NAEP, the gold standard of large-scale assessment, but still humble and unsure of itself. We are a cautious bunch.

Large-scale assessment never asked to be the center of attention. It yearns for the good old days when assessment results, confirming what everyone already knew, were merely a blip on the radar, rarely front-page news.

Large-scale assessment was a little inconvenient perhaps, but nothing major. Maybe one day of intense prep, a short test, and then everything’s back to normal: the colonoscopy of the education system.

What changed?

In a word: accountability.

Accountability Is …

If there is a villain in our story, it must be accountability. Everything was fine until accountability came along. Trying to reduce school quality and effectiveness to a single number, star rating, or heaven forbid, letter grade. Insanity. Who are these people?

Most definitely, it’s accountability.  AITA.

Yup, that’s the ticket.

And having reached that conclusion, I could wrap up this post at a tidy little 800 words and go back outside to my yardwork.

But there was still a nagging question that inflamed my curiosity and was causing a bit of discomfort as I sat here at the keyboard:

How did we reach the point where accountability systems, located way down there at the butt end of the PK-12 education system, have attained a level of significance that is so disproportionate to their role in the education ecosystem, their value-add, and their utility?

I became more irritated as days went by without an answer.

Then I remembered the “fable” about the parts of the body fighting over which one of them was most important and should be boss, a joke that was considered pretty rude and risqué when my Dad first shared it with me in the 1970s. That story reminded me that perhaps we should be focused on a more literal than figurative interpretation of the second half of the phrase AITA when considering accountability systems, metaphorically speaking.


I hope that we all agree that it would be a mistake to overemphasize accountability ratings or to overstate the importance of accountability systems — an extreme case of the tail wagging the dog.

Accountability systems will never be as central to student learning as content and achievement standards, curriculum, instruction, or even assessment, nevertheless they do play a vital role in identifying and eliminating waste. The people who design, develop, and manage accountability systems are the flora who provide the support needed to prevent problems from multiplying. Accountability systems and the people associated with them perform a critical, albeit small, role in educating our children.

And like the body part they most resemble (figuratively, of course), if we don’t give accountability systems the thought, care, and attention needed to ensure that they are functioning properly, every other aspect of the system will be deeply impacted.

Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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