Moving the Chains

by Robert Pondiscio
September 30th, 2009

Football fans see it time and again:  It’s 4th down and short yardage.  An official standing 30 or 40 feet away from the play sees a running back hurl himself full throttle into a forest of 300-pound linemen and disappear beneath a collapsing pile of players, a football buried somewhere against his body.   Chaos everywhere, yet the official, with unquestioned authority places the ball he lost sight of on the exact spot on the ground where forward momentum stopped and calls for the chains.  Play stops and the fans grow quiet as a team of officials runs in from the sidelines and takes a precise-to-the-inch measurement of the ball’s location.  If the any part of the ball is beyond the plane of the outstretched chain, a first down is awarded.  The crowd goes wild. 


Never mind that the linesman is merely estimating the ball’s position.  Never mind that the ten-yard length of chain was placed based on an eyeball approximation of where the series of downs began three plays ago.  Never mind that every play in the series of downs begins and ends with a best guess (the wide receiver was knocked out of bounds at about the 35-yard line) When it’s time to determine whether or not a first down is to be awarded, football is suddenly a game of inches

Games, playoff hopes, bowl bids and careers turn on a guess–or a series of guesses.  But no one seems to question it.  Call for the chains!  If you stop and think about it, this doesn’t make a lot of sense.  The answer however is simple: Don’t think about it.

Here are a few more things not to think about:

  • Writing in the New York Times, Todd Farley, the author of the book “Making the Grades: My Misadventures in the Standardized Testing Industry” describes getting a part-time, $8 an hour job scoring fourth-grade, state-wide reading comprehension tests after a five-minute interview.  “Arbitrary decision is the rule, not the exception,” he writes.  
  • “Bowen Elementary was part of what [Washington, DC] officials hailed as the success story of their 2008 standardized test results,” reports the Washington Post.  “But Bowen also had four classrooms where children erased wrong answers and replaced them with correct ones at abnormally high rates.”  The paper reports there were elevated numbers of erasures at six schools involving classrooms with 573 students.  CTB McGraw-Hill declared the data “inconclusive,” and no teachers or administrators have been accused of wrongdoing, the Post reports.  
  • In New York State seventh graders who answered just 44 percent of questions correctly on the state math test were given a passing grade. “Three years ago, the threshold for passing was 60 percent,” the New York Times reports. “In fact, students in every grade this year could slide by with fewer correct answers on the math test than in 2006.”
  • Teacher Diana Senechal recently described an experiment in which she was able to “pass” several standardized tests just by guessing and without even looking at the tests. 
  • “Policy makers define good education as higher test scores,” writes Diane Ravitch. “But students can get higher scores in reading and mathematics yet remain completely ignorant of science, the arts, civics, history, literature and foreign languages.” 

We know this.  We see it all around us, but like the football fan caught up in the arbitrary kabuki dance of the moving of the chains, we accept it, applaud it or moan about lousy spots, but the game goes on. 

“There must be a better way,” Pat Summerall, an N.F.L. veteran and broadcaster said in a recent New York Times article. “Because games are decided, careers are decided, on those measurements.”  He was talking about measuring for first downs.  “There’s a certain amount of drama that is involved with the chains,” said New York Giants president, John Mara in the same article. “Yes, it is subject to human error, just like anything else is. But I think it’s one of the traditions that we have in the game, and I don’t think any of us have felt a real compelling need to make a change.”

“With national standards will come national standardized tests, so it’s an especially good time to rethink how these exams are scored, and by whom,” Dana Goldstein sensibly observes at The American Prospect’s Tapped blog.  “Perhaps teachers and principals should be scoring tests, not $8 an hour part-timers. In that case it would be important, especially with the push for merit pay, to make sure teachers aren’t grading their own students’ tests, to decrease the temptation to engage in foul play.”

Like the theatrical measurement of a first down in football, we want to rely on precise measurements of an imprecise process to make high stakes decisions on everything from federal funding to merit pay to whether a teacher keeps his or her job at all.  “I understand that tests are far from perfect and that it is unfair to reduce the complex, nuanced work of teaching to a simple multiple choice exam,” Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently observed. 

Right.  It’s way more complicated than that. 

But it’s 4th down!  Call for the chains!  Take a measurement.  How else are we going to know?


  1. A new GAO report shows that more and more states are eliminating open-response items from their assessments and relying instead on multiple choice. Easier to score, certainly. (No $8/hour people needed.)

    Comment by Claus — October 1, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

  2. Just wait until the NFL scientists’ findings about the theoretical first down make their way into education.

    Comment by Diana Senechal — October 1, 2009 @ 8:55 pm

  3. I am heartily sick of sports metaphors in education, beginning with Arne Duncan’s oft-repeated remark about all states needing the same goalposts. Education isn’t a game, with final scores or clear winners and losers. It’s a lifelong, constantly changing process.

    While there are milestones of achievement (graduation, degrees, etc.), striving for competitive precision is an empty and pointless goal. Is the person who gets a 28 on their ACT tests “smarter” than a person who gets a 25? Will the 28 have proportionately more life success–or happiness?

    Even completely objective score-keeping and rule-bound activities like football games are often won on fluke plays. On any given Sunday, even the Detroit Lions can look good. Our job in education should not be precise comparisons on arbitrary indicators–but bringing out the best in every one of our students. We don’t need expensive national tests to tell us whose prospects are promising, and who has fallen behind.

    Comment by Nancy Flanagan — October 4, 2009 @ 6:48 pm

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