Monday, December 14, 2015

PF Jan 2016 - Economic Sanction Against Russia - Pro Position

Resolved: On balance, economic sanctions are reducing the threat Russia poses to Western interests.

For the introduction to this topic, click here.

Pro Position

This is a topic that is still unfolding.  Nearly all of the evidence is 2015 and as far as economic sanctions go, we are very near the beginning of events. The Pro position is difficult because of a number of factors. One, as already mentioned, the sanctions campaign has only been in place for a year. Two, the politics of Russia is unpredictable and cloaked in an effective propaganda machine. Three, recent actions taken by Russia, such as joining in the fight in Syria against ISIL (among other groups) may in fact prove to be for reasons as yet undisclosed, since again, the events are so fresh they are unfolding hour-by-hour now.  Still, talks and discussions behind the scenes and indeed some speculation may reveal that Russia is seeking ways to ameliorate its position with the west in order to gain some ground for lifting sanctions and this may indicate a softening of the Russian "threat". For sure, the west may have underestimated the resilience and strength of the Russians to endure hardship and certainly, Putin's government will take all action necessary to substitute lost economic trade with other BRICS nations and this will mean a much longer sanctions campaign could be required.  For this position, we will wrest conclusions from the current evidence.

The Sanctions

In the US, economic sanctions on Russia were rolled out and expanded over the month of March in the form of two executive orders; 13660 and 13661. According to the U.S. Department of State these EOs impose financial burdens on Russia. Among these are restricted transactions with a number of Russian defense companies, a core group of Russian elites comprised of Putin's "inner circle", several large banks and energy companies. Most of these targeted sanctions were aimed at restricting the ability of the so-called power elite who owned or operated many of the targeted companies from freely conducting business as usual in international dealings. More important, perhaps, are the sanctions imposed upon the ability of entities to export vital goods and services to Russia.

U.S. Department of State:
We have also suspended credit finance that encourages exports to Russia and financing for economic development projects in Russia, and are now prohibiting the provision, exportation, or reexportation of goods, services (not including financial services), or technology in support of exploration or production for deepwater, Arctic offshore, or shale projects that have the potential to produce oil in the Russian Federation, or in maritime area claimed by the Russian Federation and extending from its territory, and that involve five major Russian energy companies. 

The European Union has responded in kind and continues to take actions to extend their own sanctions against Russia. According to the European Council the actions include freezing the assets of numerous individuals and entities in Russia as well as imposing travel bans. Likewise, the EU has imposed export restrictions.

European Council:
As a consequence of the EU's non-recognition of the illegal annexation of Crimea and Sevastopol by Russia, the Council imposed substantial restrictions on economic relations with Crimea and Sevastopol. These measures include an import ban on goods from Crimea and Sevastopol, imposed in June 2014, as well as restrictions introduced in July on trade and investment related to certain economic sectors and infrastructure projects. In addition, a full ban on investment has been in place since December 2014, along with a prohibition to supply tourism services in Crimea. Exports of further key goods for certain sectors are also banned, including equipment for the prospection, exploration and production of oil, gas and mineral resources. On 19 June 2015, the Council extended these measures until 23 June 2016.

The EU sanctions are closely linked to what is known as the Minsk II Agreement (The Telegraph 2015) which is aimed toward restoring peace in certain regions of Ukraine.  However, earlier attempts to establish a cease-fire were shaky at best and it is the perception of the EU the Minsk agreements may not come to fruition in 2015 and for this reason, sanctions have been extended into January, 2016 (European Council 2015).

The Impact

Now, nearly one year after the imposition of sanctions, we can try to determine the impacts. Unfortunately, since Russia is a leading exporter and distributor of oil (The World Factbook), Pro must acknowledge, the impact calculus is complicated by the fact the drop in oil prices has also had a profound impact on the Russian economy. Nevertheless, the effects of economic sanctions are being felt.

Birnbaum 2015:
Most Russians shrugged off the first several rounds of sanctions, which targeted people and institutions close to Putin. But after the July shoot-down of a civilian jetliner over eastern Ukraine, the West struck harder, and Russia retaliated with import bans on most Western food products. The Russian countersanctions have hurt European farmers, but they may have affected Russians most of all: Food prices soared afterward. The ruble’s plummet, which accelerated in November, only made things worse. The price of cabbage has almost doubled in the past year. Pork is up nearly a third, and potatoes a quarter. Late last month, Russia’s biggest grocery chains posted signs in their stores announcing temporary price freezes on key products, but many items are still getting costlier by the week.

Despite the fact Russian leaders and pro-government pundits may be blaming the West for all of its economic woes, Putin believes, "25 to 30 percent of Russia’s economic woes on the sanctions." (Birnbaum 2015). Russian banks, targeted by sanctions have curtailed lending and so leading Russian businesses are turning increasingly to the state for loans while Russia has hemorrhaged some $150 billion in the last year (Birnbaum 2015). Nevertheless, despite this somewhat conservative estimate of impact by Putin, more recent evidence will show, Putin is worried the state may soon be broke.

Oxenstierna & Olsson (2015):
Western sanctions have hit the Russian economy through three distinct channels. First, they have caused volatility on the foreign exchange market and a significant depreciation of the rouble (ibid.). This has led to capital flight and the deterioration of Russia’s international reserves. Second, the restriction on access to international financial markets has tightened domestic and external credit conditions and this had a negative effect on investment and consumption. These are the sanctions that have impacted the economy most in the short run since they inhibit investment and refinancing of major state banks and other financial institutes which affects the whole economy. In addition, the key income-earning state oil company Rosneft is directly targeted by these sanctions as well as companies in the defence sector. This adds to the general credit crunch. The third channel cited by the World Bank is the crisis of confidence that has developed as a consequence of the geopolitical tension and sanctions. It has resulted in great uncertainty regarding policy and economic development.

Con will claim Russia can and has mitigated the impact of sanctions by replacing the losses incurred by sanctions with increased transactions with other, non-western partners.  Some literature speaks of an eastern pivot of the Russian economy toward the economic strength of China. However, the power of the U.S. lead sanctions regime to punish international financial institutions may deter flow of funds into Russia from the east.

Miyares 2015:
...foreign investment banks are also faced with the fear of dealing with Western regulators. The US in particular has a track record of imposing massive fines on leading banks for international sanctions violations. This fear is not only felt by Western banking and finance entities, but also by those based in China, which, according to Yuri Soloviev, the first deputy chairman and president of the management board of VTB Bank, have refused to carry out interbank transactions with their Russian counterparts and have curtailed trade financing transactions in the wake of U.S./EU sanctions. While Chinese investment in Russia has indeed increased year-over-year in response to the flight of Western investors, Russia’s reliance on Eastern foreign investment to substitute Western investment may not quite be enough to make-up for the shortfall. Chinese banks with U.S. or EU operations are also subject to their sanctions policies and generally have little experience, especially compared to Western banks, in operating in the Russian financial sector...Even as Russia looks East to China for access to capital markets and technologies, it will find partners hesitant to undermine Western sanctions, especially given that both the EU and the United States are both much larger trading partners with China than Russia – in fact, in 2014 Russia was China’s ninth largest trading partner, whereas the EU and U.S. were first and second, respectively.

Finally I wll note that one important impact of sanctions may be playing right now and it too early to predict its impact on the Russian economy. Russia was a leading supplier of natural gas to Europe and was engaged in a 15 billion euro pipeline construction project to Bulgaria.The project was stopped in December 2014 "due to the European Union’s nonconstructive approach to cooperation, including Bulgaria’s decision [pressured by the US] to stop the construction of the pipeline’s stretch on its territory." As a result, Russia made a deal with Turkey create a southern route for the pipeline. However, the widening war in Syria has served to bolster the western sanction regime.

Chossudovsky 2015:
Following the downing of Russia’s SU-24 plane and the collapse of diplomatic relations between Moscow and Ankara,  that “sole route”  is no longer there, leading not only to a potential crisis in the supply of natural gas to the European Union, but also a major blow to Russia’s national economy, which depends heavily on the energy sector. From the point of view of Washington, Wall Street and the Pentagon: “War is good for business”.

The Threat to Western Interests

As I have stated in the opening analysis of this topic, we can loosely define western interests as those things which promote the preservation of the state and the well-being of its citizens. This encompasses a range of conditions which rise and fall in importance in response to changing world conditions.  Broadly speaking, western nations like the U.S. have an interest in preserving democratic principles, which include preservation of basic liberties and human rights.  Interests also incorporate a wide-range of economic interests which permit the free-flow of goods and services; and most importantly, interests include the maintenance of a security apparatus which ensures the protection of the state and citizens from hostilities both foreign and domestic.  At the outset, it is fairly obvious that a sanction regime will undoubtedly negatively impact western economic interests.  Indeed, this is the fact and Con will no doubt leverage many sources which will argue the sanctions ultimately damage western economic interests.  The Pro response to this, is seen in Russia's own response to sanctions. The ability of a state to endure sanctions lies in its ability to find other sources for good and services and so the blow to western economic interests can be offset by shifting toward other markets. There is no doubt the Ukrainian crisis has served to strengthen US-EU relations, especially with respect to Russia and this fact itself is a positive outcome of the economic sanctions regime.

No doubt a favorable image with the Russia people is within the scope of western interests which must, despite the view that perceived Russian threats to Ukrainian sovereignty harm western interests, the western-Russian cooperation is still essential in managing other crises such as the expansion of ISIL in the Middle-East.  However, as with many sanction regimes, the target government is able to spin a lot of political capital employing a "rally around the flag" mentality by painting the West as hostile to the people and government of Russia. Indeed, Putin's support at home is strong (Bolen:12).

However, the political exploitation of the sanctions as a rallying point for Putin's internal support is not unexpected.  In many ways, it can be argued Putin's grip on Russia is the heart of the problem and the tightening of his grip on power further serves to justify western resolve to undermine his regime.  It can be argued that all that is seen "wrong" with Russia and its approach to international affairs can be personified in its leader, Vladamir Putin.

Kramer 2015:
Vladimir Putin is a threat to virtually everything the West stands for. The system he has overseen at home for the past fifteen years is antithetical to our own; the effects of his foreign policy have been damaging to Western interests. Putin has consciously supported Bashar al-Assad’s slaughter of the Syrian people by arming Syrian forces; he has agreed with the mullahs to construct new nuclear reactors in Iran; he has menacingly reminded the world of Russia’s nuclear weapons capability; and, continuing his energy blackmail by other means, he has challenged NATO states and others with provocative military flights and submarine maneuvers. Given these challenges, we should set aside the reset button as long as he’s in power...we are in a crisis because of Putin, not because of us. We should stop seeing him as anything other than a paranoid authoritarian leader who oversees one of the most corrupt regimes in the world. Preventing his corruption from infiltrating and infecting our own systems should be a top priority. The West had no interest in picking a fight with Russia and turned to sanctions reluctantly. While Western policies over the years have not been perfect by any means, those who argue that NATO enlargement, EU outreach to Russia’s neighbors, or American policies over the years are to blame make an unconvincing case.

Leading political analysts, concur. The spread of democracy is the defining value of European interests and so the EU continues to direct focus on its eastern "neighborhoods" despite other world-wide crises in Syria, Iraq, and South China Sea (Adebahr 2015). The EU even more than the US sees Russian interventionism in Ukraine as a direct intervention is EU affairs. This "intrusion" is an affront to an initiative known as the European Neighborhood Policy which extends well beyond the traditional borders of Europe.

Adebahr 2015:
The fact the some of the protesters on Kyiv’s Maidan square took to the streets with European flags is only the more visible reason for this. What is more important is that the crisis puts into question the core of European values: Democracy and the rule of law, spreading which is the rationale of the EU’s Enlargement and its toned-down Eastern Partnership (EaP) policy; the inviolability of borders as enshrined in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975; and of course the broader international system with the United Nations and its central principles on the use of force. Russia’s annexation of Crimea and its continued meddling in Eastern Ukraine have clearly violated these values. 

To be sure, the EU, much more than the US, has a large stake in the Russian economy relying heavily on Russian oil and defense and technology contracts, which are now threatened in the blow-back of sanctions. Europe has been reluctant to push Russia too hard and this is explained well in the Adebahr analysis.  But I don't reference it to review the impact of sanctions on the EU, rather to establish some background of what constitutes western interests. The argument is advanced the damage to EU interests spawned by blow-back from Western sanctions is outweighed.

Tchernega 2015:
After the coup d’état in Kiev, Russia, quite unexpectedly for itself, had to take certain steps to protect its interests by incorporating Crimea and supporting pro-Russian movements in Donbass. In this extraordinary situation, the Russian leadership failed to calculate the consequences of these steps. It obviously had not expected that the European Union would support the anti-Russian sanctions imposed by the U.S., which, as French politician Jean-Pierre Chevenement wrote, “through a widely echoed ideological crusade […] is attempting both to isolate Russia and to tighten its control over the rest of Europe.” The EU’s common interests with the U.S., especially at a time of important negotiations on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement, the excessive ideologization of foreign policy, and the growing tendency in the West to “export democracy” outweighed the damage the anti-Russian sanctions were inflicting upon Europe. Russia also neglected the factor of an ascending Germany, which is turning into the EU leader and has always had “historical interest” in Ukraine. Chevenement writes that there are now 1,500 German industrial enterprises in Ukraine, and just 80 French businesses. 

Stoicescu 2015:
The US Secretary of Defense, Ashley Carter, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Joseph Dunford, and the recently retired Chief of Staff of the Army, General Raymond Odierno, agree that Russia represents a significant threat to the United States and its allies. So does NATO’s top military commander (SACEUR), General Philip Breedlove. However, decisions of the highest importance in critical moments are made at the White House. Even though a Russian attack against a NATO ally is a rather different issue than Russia’s continued aggression against Ukraine, one should keep in mind that the decision to offer Ukraine legitimate lethal self-defence aid has passed through all relevant US authorities to the very top, but has been on hold for months, pending final approval by President Obama. This decision may be, of course, ultimately enforced if Russia escalates the situation in the Donbas and tries to extend occupied territories.

The Advantages

From the earliest days of the pro-western movement in Ukraine and increased pressure from Russia to turn away from western support; right up until the Ukrainian regime of Yanukovych buckled under citizen pressure, the U.S. has enjoyed a favorable position in the region. This has provided an opportunity for western powers to gain influence in the region and one may presume time continues to enhance that advantage.

Tchernega 2015:
the U.S. has gained a lot politically from the Ukrainian crisis: a long-term wedge has been driven between Russia and Ukraine, and between Russia and Europe, which has long been a strategic objective of U.S. diplomacy in the region. The popularity of the U.S. in Ukraine has increased. This is all the more surprising because the U.S. must have had little idea of Ukraine as a country and of how fragile its statehood actually is. Yet it had for years promoted “Western values” in Ukrainian society, especially among young Ukrainians. During my business trips to Ukraine from Strasbourg, I often saw large groups of Ukrainian high school or university students leave for the U.S. or Canada for on-the-job training, accompanied by “guides” from Western NGOs. And, of course, the U.S., unlike Russia, had actively worked with the opposition. Therefore, during the Maidan Revolution the U.S. had no problem choosing protégés, who are now conducting a more anti-Russian policy than the West.

This advantage will continue to undermine Russian efforts to curtail western influence in Ukraine and may serve to complicate the Russian position.

After one year, can Pro claim that sanctions have reduced the threat posed against Western interests? It is still early.  We can say, since sanctions have been put into place they EU and Russians have agreed to the Minsk II accord in February of 2015. This agreement provided for an immediate cease-fire and eventual withdraw of weapons from contested regions of Ukraine. While the deadline for implementation passed and the shooting continued, the agreement itself suggests a willingness by Russia and the west to reduce tensions and find a way out of the crises. This along could signal a reduction, or least a willingness to reduce threats to western interests and vise-versa. Since the failure of Minsk II, the west has insisted upon linking the reduction of EU sanctions on compliance with Minsk II and Russia wants to see the two actions as separate. Nevertheless, a cease-fire finally did go into place on September 1, 2015 and despite sporadic violence and accusations of violation, held for over a month and has recently begun to increase. In any case, the cease-fire is still a long way from fully implementing Minsk II.

Dorell 2015:
The fighting and a failure by Russia-backed separatists to implement measures of the  cease-fire agreement reached in the Belarussian capital, Minsk, make it unlikely the two sides will meet a self-imposed year-end deadline to end the conflict, NATO Supreme Allied Commander Philip Breedlove said last week. NATO’s Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg warned of renewed war after a meeting about Ukraine with foreign ministers of the U.S.-led alliance last week. “Russian-backed separatists have not yet withdrawn their troops and equipment. Illegal groups in eastern Ukraine have not been disarmed. And Ukraine has not been able to re-establish control over its border,” Stoltenberg said.

Heavy Weapons Pullback
Nevertheless, there are more reasons to believe the sanctions are taking effect.  In early October of this year, the withdrawal of heavy weapons began in the Luhansk region of Ukraine, a separatist stronghold.  To date, the draw-down of weapons required by the Minsk II agreement is not complete and there are signs and signals of deception by preventing inspectors to enter some of the contested regions. Since October, progress continues to be made amid set-backs. OSCE inspectors are back in the region and their reports are published frequently. The draw-down, as incomplete as it may be, seems to indicate some shifting of the Russian position from their hard-line in Ukraine.  Recall, compliance with Minsk II is a prerequisite to the lifting of sanctions.

Russian Troop Withdrawal
In early December, the first signs of Russian troop withdrawal from the border regions of eastern Ukraine were observed and reported. This withdrawal corresponds with an agreement between Ukrainian and pro-Russian separatists to strengthen the cease-fire and draw back from contested borders. Once again we are witnessing the earliest moves toward Minsk II compliance. We conclude sanctions are reducing threats.

The New Tone
In the Pro position, we have to take these signs as evidence of sanctions reducing threats. The mere willingness to strike a deal, yet to be implemented puts in place a framework for reduction of war (Jarabik 2015) which no doubt reduces the threat to western interests.  While the current situation in Ukraine will be reviewed at the end of the year and depending on those findings the sanctions may be extended, there may already be signs of softening. On December 3rd, during Putin's yearly presidential address, a less confrontational tone emerged.

Economist 2015:
As usual, he implied that America was to blame for “decid(ing) to oust the unwanted regimes (in the Middle East) and brutally impose their own rules”, precipitating civil war. He lashed out against Turkey, Russia’s new nemesis since it shot down a Russian fighter-bomber two weeks ago, threatening that further measures would follow the trade sanctions Russia has already imposed. But most of the speech was more pacific, focusing on the economy, the need to prepare for low oil prices, and social issues. Ukraine was not mentioned; Crimea appeared only briefly. Anti-Americanism was nearly absent. No one expects the Kremlin to make an about-face in its opposition to the West, but the shift in tone was notable. Mr Putin may simply be reading the weather. Recent polling by the independent Levada Centre finds that 75% of Russians think relations with the West should be improved. Mr Putin may also be reconsidering the wisdom of further antagonising the outside world. Russia’s economy is in a precarious state, as he came close to acknowledging in his speech: “By changing nothing, we will simply run out of reserves and the economic growth rates will linger around zero.”

For all these reasons and more, we urge a Pro ballot.


Adebahr, C (2015), Reconciling European values and Western interests in Ukraine, European Leadership Network, accessed 12/8/2015 at:

Birnbaum, M (2015), "A year into a conflict with Russia, are sanctions working?", The Washington Post, accessed 12/8/2015 at:

Bolen, C. (2015), The Sanctions Against Russia: What Did the West and the Media Expect?, Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, January 2015. Accessed at

Chossudovsky, M. (2015), Impacts of Turkey’s Aggression against Russia. The “Turkish Stream” is Dead. Disruption of Gas Pipeline Routes to the EU. Russia’s Economy in Crisis?, Global Research, Nov 27, 2015. accessed 12/10/2015 at:

Dorell, O (2015), Resumed violence threatens Ukraine cease-fire, USA Today, December 8, 2015, accessed 12/11/2015 at:

The Economist (2015), As Russia’s economy shrinks, Vladimir Putin softens his tone, The Economist, Dec. 8, 2015, accessed 12/10/2015 at:

European Council (2015), EU restrictive measures in response to the crisis in Ukraine, European Council, accessed 12/8/2015 at:

Jarabik, B (2015) Lon Live Minsk II?, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, accessed 12/8/2015 at:

Kramer, DJ (2015), The Ukraine Invasion: One Year Later, World Affairs, accessed 12/8/2015 at:

Miyares, N (2015), The Impact of Western Sanctions on Russia, The Vostokian, Jul. 1, 2015. accessed at:

Oxenstierna, S & Olsson, P (2015); The economic sanctions against Russia. Impact and prospects of success, Swedish Defense Research Agency, accessed 12/8/2015 at:

Stoicescu, K (2015)
The Russian Threat to Security in the Baltic Sea Region, RKK International Centre For Defense and Security, access 12/10/2015 at:

Tchernega, V (2015), The Ukrainian Lesson, Russia in Global Affairs, accessed 12/11/2015 at:

The Telegraph (2015), Minsk agreement on Ukraine crisis: text in full, The Telegraph, 12 Feb 2015. Accessed at:

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

PF Jan 2016 - Economic Sanctions Against Russia - Introduction

Resolved: On balance, economic sanctions are reducing the threat Russia poses to Western interests.


The topic is relevant to the current situation insofar as the west, led by the U.S., has imposed economic sanctions on Vladimir Putin's Russia in response to perceived Russian aggression in Crimea and Ukraine in early 2014. In response, Russia has likewise imposed sanctions on many EU countries and the U.S.  Whether or not the west was justified in its claims leading to the imposition of sanctions is a matter of debate. This resolution seems to imply the rationale for sanctions was based on perceived threats to western interests although the true rationale is no doubt much more complex. What constitutes national interests is often a nebulous set of values but according to some international relations theories, national interests tend be guided by the need to preserve the sovereignty of the state and protect the sense of well-being of its citizens.

In the world of international relations theories one often speaks of hard power and soft power. Hard power is best understood as an exercise in military or economic strength to influence the behavior of another country. In contrast, soft power is the ability to influence other countries to go along with a course of action, not through an exercise of might but rather through diplomatic influence and spending a kind of political capital which inspires others to cooperate for the mutual benefit of all.  It is probably not surprising for you to learn that when a nation militarily attacks another it is an exercise of hard power.  It may surprise you to know that economic sanctions are also considered an exercise in hard power since the long term effects of economic sanctions can be quite damaging to a country. It is argued that sanctions are in some ways worse than a military strike because it is a drawn-out, slow-paced attack that causes wide-spread suffering when implemented effectively. Nearly one year after the decision to impose sanctions, U.S. Public Forum debaters can now look at the Pro and Con sides of the issue and decide whether or not the sanctions have served the implied purpose of reducing threats to western interests.  

This Resolution

Three times in the past, Lincoln-Douglas debaters have tackled the issue of economic sanctions. Most recently in early 2010 with, "Resolved: Economic sanctions ought not be used to achieve foreign policy objectives." I remember this debate very well as it allowed LDers to thoroughly explore the use of sanctions as weapon for achieving policy objectives. This debate will be less philosophical and will probably utilize more of a cost-benefit framework. This particular topic is potentially interesting because it will inspire a broad spectrum of research.  Conversely, this topic is potentially bad because perhaps it is overly broad and thus difficult to debate within the context of 4-4-2-2 speech times. Debaters will be required to setup an "on balance" weighing mechanism; focus on key western interests which, please note, are not limited to U.S interests; establish that prior to sanctions those interests were threatened by Russia; and then prove the current regime of economic sanctions have reduced the threat. Of course, the definition of reduce is potentially open for multiple interpretations. This is a lot for a four minute constructive.  On the Con side of the debate, since Con is required to establish a position of advocacy, debaters have a multitude of potential positions which may or may not directly refute the Pro. Con may claim, western interests were not and are not 'threatened' or Con may claim there were and are threats to western interests and economic sanctions did not and are not reducing the threat(s). In fact, Con may decide sanctions have only served to broaden the threat to western interests by arousing the tensions and mistrust that have long been integral to Russian-western relations.


on balance
For this definition I repeat what I said for last month's resolution. It is certainly not the first time we have seen these words in debate and the meaning should be obvious if you think in terms of a balance-beam type of scale used to weigh things. On balance basically means, as the Collins English Dictionary puts it, "after weighing up all the factors". On balance is another way of saying after comparing one side to the other or specifically in debate terminology, after looking at the pros and cons. The comparison does not always have to be analysis of pros versus cons.  Sometimes one can compare factors to standards (norms, known quantities, expectations, etc.) Often, this approach can be preferable to weighing up two unknowns on each side of the balance beam.  Think about it, if one weighs one unknown against another unknown, it is, one presumes, possible to determine which weighs more but impossible to tell how much weight either side carries.

economic sanctions
These are defined as a class of actions aimed at coercing a government to change its current policies or behaviors by restricting or eliminating trade and otherwise interfering with the economic sustainability of the target country or group.

Elliott, et al:
The term “economic sanctions” encompasses the deliberate, government-inspired withdrawal, or threat of withdrawal, of customary trade or financial relations. (“Customary” refers to the levels of trade or financial activity that would probably have occurred in the absence of sanctions.)

reducing (to reduce)
The present progressive form of 'to reduce', defined by Merriam Webster as "to make (something) smaller in size, amount, number, etc." If this was policy debate, the word reducing could be interpreted in very specific ways, some of which can be abusive to one side of the debate or the other. I am hoping it is not necessary to provide detailed specifics as to percentages or amounts of reduction and indeed that can be avoided if the levels of threat can be roughly conceived as either diminishing, remaining steady or increasing.  What I think may complicate the broad debate is the nature of the threat since threats have different weights.  By this I mean, suppose it is shown Russia has reduced the numbers of troops or paramilitary in Ukraine but increased economic sanctions against Ukraine. Is that a net increase or decrease in overall threat?  I am not saying this is the situation, I am merely speculating as to how ugly the debate over "reducing" can potentially become.

Merriam Webster provides a complex definition of threat as "a declaration of an intention or determination to inflict punishment, injury, etc., in retaliation for, or conditionally upon, some action or course; menace" or "an indication or warning of probable trouble".  The thing about threats is, they are merely indications. They are a perception that some harm is imminent or intended. Many moral theories justify proactive self-defense based solely on the perception of imminent danger (i.e. a threat) for which there is no alternative means of withdrawing from the threat. But, under most moral theories, the self-defensive action ought to be proportional to the level of threat. Again, I don't expect the debate over 'threat' to get too intense owing to the limited amount of speech time available in Public Forum debate but one can never be too sure.

For most of you, I assume Russia does not need to be formally defined and there is certainly good reason to believe your judge will know what Russia is.  For those who don't know, look at a map of the world and notice that great big chunk of color which occupies nearly the entirety of northern Asia. Say hello to Russia. Russia is a vast and resource rich nation which ranks among the most powerful in the world, militarily and (to a lesser degree) economically.  Formally, Russia was the heart of the Soviet Union and controlled most of eastern Europe as well as many of the now sovereign states in and around the Caucasus Mountains between the Caspian and Black Seas. When the Soviet Union broke up in the late 1980's early '90s, Russia emerged as the largest and undoubtedly most powerful nation of the former union, however, many of the resources and weapons were concentrated in nations which gained internationally recognized independence. I would urge you to spend some time researching the relationship between Russia, Ukraine, Crimea and the importance of the Black Sea region in general.  In particular pay attention to Russia's perception of its own national interests and the role they played in arriving at the premises of this debate.

As defined by Merriam Webster, to set forth or put in place. It is not necessarily a contentious word and probably does not require definition in the debate.  Basically when something is "posed" it means something is put forth for consideration.

Western interests
Generally, we can define western interests as those pursuits the so-called western nations (principally the U.S. and E.U. and associated allies) deem most important in promoting well-being for the individual states and their citizens.  Usually those interests include security, economic stability, and access to key resources. I do not want to spend too much time discussing the meaning in this part of the analysis. "Interests" are not always easy to pin-down and will vary according to who is expressing them in accordance with the ever-changing events of world affairs.  Each debater will need to provide a reasonable explanation of western interests to some degree of specificity and this will be discussed more fully when the Pro and Con positions are presented.

Good luck. It is a lot to debate and I hope you find it very informative and interesting.


Elliott, KA; Hufbauer, GC; and Oegg, B, undated, Sanctions, The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics, accessed 12/2/2015 at:

Tuesday, December 1, 2015

LD Jan/Feb 2016 - Handguns Ought To Be Banned - Introduction

Resolved: In the United States, private ownership of handguns ought to be banned


This topic is similar to a PF topic debated in September, 2012, "Resolved: Congress should renew the Federal Assault Weapons Ban." That particular debate focused on an existing piece of legislation which covered not only a specific, deadly class of firearms but also various equipment and accessories which make rapid-fire shooting and reloading possible.  Nearly exact wording to this resolution was used in PF back in 2007 at the NSDA National Tournament, "Resolved: That the private ownership of handguns should be banned in the United States." While Lincoln Douglas has debated nuclear weapons many times, I believe this is the first time it will take on the issue of handgun ownership.

I am not happy about this topic. Not because I don't think gun control could be an interesting debate but rather because this topic appears to be very narrow and fails to deal with the broad issues related to private gun ownership as related to the recent headlines involving mass-shootings across the U.S. Additionally, as narrow as this topic seems to be, it tends to force the Affirmative debater to advocate a position contrary to the commonly held belief American citizens have a constitutional right to keep and bear arms. Does this mean Aff needs to work within the context of an imaginary world where we can debate what "ought" to be rather than the real-world reality of what is? We shall see where the evidence and philosophy takes us. First, let's look at the wording of the resolution.


In the United States
This term needs no definition.  The United States is the nation comprised of the fifty states, one of which, you will be residing in if you are a United States high-school debater.  The main point of specifying, "in the United States" is to limit the scope of the debate to the U.S. only.  Therefore, while the debate can be generalized to a certain degree, it is intended to be focused directly upon the jurisdiction of the U.S.

private ownership
These terms, as defined in the Collins English Dictionary, define a state of being owned by a private individual or entity as opposed to owned by a public entity or the state.  Now we can break it down even farther and say "private" means "for use of a single person or group" and "ownership" is the state or fact of belonging to oneself (both definitions by Merriam Webster). This is very closely related to the concept of private property which is as you may surmise, property (items, things, etc.) rightfully possessed by an individual or group (see for example, the Business Dictionary.) I use the word 'rightfully' because when one 'possesses' private property, presumably, one is granted all legal rights to the item.  As a Lincoln Douglas debater you may already understand the right to property to be a natural right under Lockean ideology. Further, under many Lincoln Douglas constructs, some private property may be forfeited for some causes or the ownership of certain kinds of property may be restricted by the state in the interests of utility or government legitimacy.  Thus, private ownership can be summarized as the legal right of a private individual to possess something.

Technically this word defines a firearm designed to be held in the hand.  Merriam Webster specifies a firearm intended to be fired with one hand. This very much matches the ATF definition of a 'pistol'. While many guns in this classification can be gripped and operated with both hands, generally, guns which are typically braced or secured by use of a shoulder stock or other forms of support are not included. Thus, most rifles (including assault rifles) and shotguns, are not considered handguns. The fact a weapon may be single-shot, semi-automatic or fully automatic makes no difference.

ought to
Ought is derived from the root word "owe" which conveys the sense of duty of obligation. As I have said many times and continue to say, while ought may be seen as equivalent to the word "should" and there is no real harm to interpreting it that way, ought does lend some validation to affirmative claims we should consider an obligatory, alternative point of view.

be banned
To be banned means to be prohibited by law. Basically it means to be made illegal.

And So...

There seems to be little we can squeeze from the interpretation of the words of the resolution.  It means pretty much exactly what is says.  Within the jurisdiction of the United States, it ought to be illegal for private individuals to own handguns. One of the difficulties I perceive immediately is, why handguns as opposed to other forms of firearms, such as semi-automatic assault rifles? Perhaps we can make the claim handguns are usually smaller and so easily concealable and so something inherent in that quality justifies the Aff position. Of course, debating handguns avoids the need to argue against most sporting and hunting weapons which can trigger all kinds of defensive knee-jerk reactions in some judges. On the other hand, if all the Neg chooses to debate is the second amendment, I can't imagine two months of that debate even with all the possible permutations of counter-interpretations Aff can spin over language such as a "well regulated militia" or "infringed". Even more troubling will be the difficulty in finding good, non-biased evidence to support either side. In my opinion, the most interesting debate will take place outside of the legal framework of constitutional law and focus on the rationality of private gun ownership in 21st century U.S.A. However, by suggesting my preference I also reveal my own desire for a much broader debate which goes beyond handguns as commonly defined.

This topic will require some in-depth research so don't expect to see positions come-out too quickly. I will cover the obvious arguments but I also want to find some way to take this topic beyond the most obvious positions.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

PF Dec 2015 - Standardized Tests are Beneficial - Con Position

Resolved: On balance, standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States.

For part 1 of this analysis, click here.

Con Position

This Con side of this topic, on face, seems to enjoy a bit of an advantage. For that reason, I spent a great deal of time addressing the Pro side.  I believe, there is a pre-existing bias in the community against standardized testing or more generally against too much involvement by government in the daily lives of individuals. Since PF judges are members of the community Con should be happy. Nevertheless, Con does need to do more than sit back and watch Pro struggle to convince a parent judge or possible teacher that government mandated, standardized testing is beneficial to education. Con still needs to advocate a position. In order to promote an appropriate position, I will address a few key points and leave the remaining research to you.

We begin with a broad swipe at the premise of standardized testing.

Gawthrop 2014:
By definition, a standardized test is a one-size fits all sort of thing, but that does not work in a system with widely varying curriculums. A test cannot offer questions that are perfectly aligned with all the different curriculums, in every school, in the United States. Even if a common curriculum were to be implemented (as Common Core is attempting to do), where every state and school had the same curriculum, that still does not mean that it would be the best curriculum for every student, or that those students would learn that curriculum at the same speed. There would still be wide variations between schools and standardized test results would remain unable to provide a complete picture of student performance.[18]

With that we will look specifically at several major contentions, specifically; the narrowing of the curriculum, how administrators stack the deck, the negative effects upon student self-image, the impact on minorities and the impact upon non-targeted students.

Narrowing the Curriculum

This argument is based upon the fact that government mandated, standardized tests have high-stakes implications for school systems since ultimately, the availability of funding is often linked to good test outcomes.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There is consistency in the research which implies that standardized testing has a negative impact on classroom instruction. One finding across several studies was that a greater amount of time was spent on instruction in the subject areas that were tested. Most of teachers’ time was spent on reading and math to the exclusion of other content areas such as history or science (Abrams, Pedulla, & Madaus, 2003; Diamond, 2007; Moon, Brighton, & Callahan, 2003). [5]

While, in general it may seem good to focus on certain areas of study which may be deemed 'weak' by government standards, there are only so many hours of in-class time.  The hours allowed to education are a kind of zero-sum quantity which means, more hours spent on topics like math or science means fewer hours available to things like social studies, art, music and similar non-target study areas.

Kok-Devries 2011:
Furthermore, teachers reported that a large amount of class time was spent on test preparation. Several teachers reported they narrowed the scope of the curriculum to prepare students for standardized testing. At times, instruction was abandoned completely and prepared practice tests were given to students (Barksdale-Ladd & Thomas, 2000).[5]

Further to the idea that class-time is a zero-sum quantity, a report by the National Council of Teachers of English makes the claim that teachers can lose between 60 and 110 hours per year on test related administrative tasks (NCTE 2014).  These kinds of duties produce an added burden which consumes time that could be better spent getting on with the business of teaching students.

Gaming the System

Another negative impact of standardized tests is their effect on administrative approaches to education. Part of the mission of school systems is to produce better citizens even if it is not always possible to bring every student up to a mandated level of scholastic achievement. The pressures of high-stakes tests can force administrators into adopting educational strategies which enhance their test system rankings rather than enhance the educational benefits of the students.

Schul 2011:
High-stakes testing not only has dramatic curricular effects, but there's also reason to believe that it diverts the attention of school leadership from the educative mission of the public school experience. Rather than focusing upon ways to provide a quality civic apprenticeship for students, school administrators across the nation have been distracted by the need to avoid the bite of NCLB's high-stakes accountability requirements through what have been coined within the circle of education policy makers as "gaming strategies." One such gaming strategy that school districts have used to meet NCLB's Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) requirements is exemption of students deemed as likely to struggle with taking the test. Exemption of this sort typically means placing students in special education where their test scores aren't included in the school's AYP data. Because the schools are more likely to exclude students who are low-performing on high stakes-tests, minorities and the economically disadvantaged are once again neglected by the system (Booher-Jennings and Beveridge, 2008). Ironically, with districts using such gaming strategies, NCLB ends up hurting the very students it intended to help.[2]

Musoleno and White also note the propensity of school systems to "game", the system in order to live up to government mandated standards.  This gaming strategies have a wide range impacts which over-limits the ability of instructors to offer broad educational benefits.

Musoleno & White 2010:
In another discussion on standardized tests, Bracey (2009) asserted, “Schools under the gun to raise test scores increasingly rely on strategies that get immediate, but short-lived, results” (p. 34). This tendency is further supported by those noting a shift in instructional tendency to incorporate test-taking skills. “Schools participate in gaming strategies to avoid adverse consequences, and teachers reshape instructional activities to mirror standardized tests” (Valli, Croninger, Chambliss, Graeber, & Buese, 2008, p. 51). Thus, NCLB has noticeably impacted educators’ content coverage and the use of instructional time. [2]

Categorical Damage

With the claim that schools are more likely to exempt low-performing students from high-stakes tests (Schul 2011:2) we see another major problem inherent in standardized testing. Not only do they provide a means to measure the performance of classes, schools, districts and state educational systems we must not lose sight of the fact they ultimately measure the performance of individual students. Students are highly-pressured by the requirement to do well on tests and suffer psychological effects when they fail to meet the standard.  As we have seen in the preceding discussion, administrators may categorize students according to the performance level on standardized tests and a student who knows he is considered an "underachiever" may be more prone to not try to attain higher levels of achievement.

Gawthrop 2014:
The price and efficiency of using standardized testing, to accumulate vast amounts of information, is quite appealing to administrators, who require such information to make policy decisions. Standardized tests have been increasingly used, “to make major decisions about students, such as grade promotion or high school graduation, and schools. More and more often, they also are intended to shape curriculum and instruction.”11 It is assumed that newer tests have overcome the flaws of past tests and are accurately able to measure important data that is worth “testing to”. However, this argument completely ignores the real-world limitations to what a standardized test can actually do.12 Tests are created to assess a student’s knowledge base; meaning test results are not representative of the student’s total academic ability. [7]

Despite the knowledge that "one size fits all" testing fails to adequately assess student abilities, the use of standardized testing is expanding. Kok-Devries explains the effect tests have on students is little understood.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There is less research to address how standardized testing impacts students. The research available indicated that standardized testing often had a negative impact on students. Anxiety and fear of failure on tests was observed across grade levels. Even children in elementary schools experienced high levels of anxiety and worry (Triplett & Barksdale, 2005). [6]

The NCTE soundly criticizes these negative impacts upon individual students and claims the categorization of students has profound repercussions on the ability of students to see themselves as capable of being successful.

NCTE 2014:
Another limitation on student learning results from the negative perceptions standardized tests can give to students about themselves and their own abilities. Studies show that elementary school students can begin to lose their sense of themselves as capable, able to do well in school and graduate, when they see unknown adults as controlling the administration and consequences of the standardized tests they are required to take. Even the very best ELA [English Language Arts] teachers have difficulty fostering learning in students who do not believe in their own abilities. Student learning is also limited by testing’s inflexible sorting of students into categories of proficient or not-proficient. It can be very difficult for students designated as not-proficient to imagine themselves as effective readers and writers. This test-generated binary is troubling because it gives no space to the full range of features that comprise effective reading and writing. [2] 

The personal impact of standardized testing on students is a very crucial impact for the Con, in my opinion.  A student's self-confidence and self-image is all important in fostering the kinds of attitudes required to succeed and yet the experts are warning that those students who fall below the standards imposed by the government are most at risk. This impact carries over to students motivation to apply for college.

Many institutions of high learning do not consider standardized tests as a major factor in college admissions as colleges tend to evaluate a wide range of criteria when selecting applicants. Some organizations are urging a more wide-spread movement among colleges to accept students who do not submit standardized test results based on research which shows these students often attain higher levels of  achievement than their test results would suggest.

Hiss, et al 2014:
Does standardized testing produce valuable predictive results, or does it artificially truncate the pools of applicants who would succeed if they could be encouraged to apply? At least based on this study, it is far more the latter. In a wide variety of settings, nonsubmitters are out-performing their standardized testing. Others may raise the more complex issues of test bias, but we are asking a much simpler and more direct question: if students have an option to have their admissions decisions made without test scores, how well do these students succeed, as measured by cumulative GPAs and graduation rates?

According to the Hiss study, while high-school GPAs do tend to predict collegiate success, test scores or lack of test scores do not.

Gawthrop 2014:
Universities understand that test scores do not reveal the whole picture about applicants and look at other factors besides test scores. It seems like common sense, that universities would look at more factors, in a potential student, than simply the test scores; but in compulsory education this is not the case. Test scores are typically the determiner of everything in grades K-12 and as a result, this can create adaptation. Test questions that require out of school knowledge, significantly affect students who come from low socioeconomic backgrounds. The majority of these poorer students are minorities, either African American or Latino. The most provocative evidence on the negative effect of standardized testing is the tendency of African American students, to adapt to the expectations of standardized tests; these expectations being that black students will not do as well as white students.7[25]

Considering the impact on college admissions due to self-selection and adaption in schools with large minority populations, it is important to touch upon the the overall effect of standardized testing on minorities.

Minority Report

As has been widely reported since the inception of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), standardized tests often tend to further compartmentalize minority students and the time spent preparing the students for good test results detracted from other educational opportunities.

Kok-Devries 2011:
There seems to be significant agreement in the research that schools with a majority of minority students were most deeply affected by standardized testing (Lattimore, 2005; Lomax, West, Harmon, & Viator, 1995). It was the researchers’ view that minority children were not given equal educational opportunities, because a majority of their educational time was spent on test preparation. Furthermore, most of the instruction of the students did not promote higher level thinking skills (Diamond, 2007; Lattimore, 2005; Watanabe, 2007). [6]

Gawthrop looks further into the impact of standardized tests upon the mindsets of minority students even prior to taking the tests and suggests that under-performance is an adaptation strategy,

Gawthrop 2014:
A conservative economist, Gary Becker, found that disadvantaged minorities made poor decisions about investing in their own future based on their perception, of their own capabilities, which were shaped by societal expectations. For Becker, “the beliefs of employers, teachers, and other influential groups that minority members are less productive can be self-fulfilling” where members of disadvantaged factions will, “underinvest in education, training, and work skills” which subsequently make these groups less productive. This illustrates how adaptation by minority groups, to societal and cultural expectations, creates a cost that effects the starting position of these groups; meaning they do not enjoy equal status in an “objective” standardized test.[26]

Targeting the Middle

It seems there is a fair amount of evidence which shows that when schools focus on the test performance of the those who tend to center around the fringes of good test performance, effort to improve these groups tend to have detrimental effects on those students at the very top of the achievement scale.

Havdala 2010:
One of the best known studies on high achieving students is by Tom Loveless (2008), who examined the impact of NCLB on high achieving students. He utilized national student-level data from the 4th and 8th grade National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) exam, one of the nation’s oldest exams and one that is administered to a random sampling of schools around the country.  He defined students at the 10th percentile as low achieving students and students at the 90th percentile as high achieving students, and tested the possibility that, since NCLB, the scores of high achieving students on the NAEP had slowed relative to those of lower achieving students. He analyzed these groups’ NAEP scores over time, using 2002, the year that NCLB was passed, as the significant year in his regressions. His research confirmed his hypothesis, indicating over a year’s worth of improvement of learning in low achieving students. Though high achieving students did not stop improving, their progress had slowed drastically since 2002.[3] 

And it may be intuitive to conclude that when the focus is upon those students who represent the middle of the road, that is, not the top tier of achievers and not the bottom, not only is the top tier receiving less attention, but the impact on the bottom is all the more profound.

Havdala 2010:
In contrast to Loveless, Carnoy and Loeb, and Reback, a wide array of studies have found an increasingly large gap between low and high achieving schools as a result of high stakes exams. Neal and Schanzenbach (2007) analyzed test scores in the Chicago school district from 2001 to 2002, a period when Chicago Public Schools shifted from a system of low stakes testing to a high stakes system. Though it was unclear whether high achieving students made any progress, low achieving students continued to lag far behind others. Only those students who were initially around the proficiency threshold had a significant improvement in scores. Such findings indicated the possibility that teachers focused their efforts on those students they felt could be pushed over the threshold, at the cost of those who were far above or far below (reflecting the threshold findings of Reback).[4]

For all these reasons and more, we urge a Con ballot.


Gawthrop , J (2014), Measuring Student Achievement: A Study of Standardized Testing and its Effect on Student Learning, Measuring Student Achievement, accessed 11/11/2016 at:

Havdala, Robert J. (2010) "The Impact of High Stakes Standardized Testing on High and Low Achieving School Districts:
The Case of the MCAS," Undergraduate Economic Review: Vol. 6: Iss. 1, Article 8.


Kok-DeVries, M (2011), STANDARDIZED TESTING AND THE IMPACT ON CLASSROOM INSTRUCTION, Symposium on School Leadership, University of Omaha, accessed 11/10/2015 at:

Musoleno, RR & White, GP (2010), Influences of High-Stakes Testing on Middle School Mission and Practice, Research in Middle Level Education (RMLE), 2010 Volume 34, No. 3. Accessed 11/11/2016 at:

NCTE (2014), How Standardized Tests Shape—and Limit—Student Learning, A Policy Research Brief produced by the National Council of Teachers of English, accessed 11/10/2015 at:

Schul, JE (2011), Unintended Consequences: Fundamental Flaws That Plague the No Child Left Behind Act, Ohio Northern University, 2011, Accessed 11/10/2016 at:

Monday, November 9, 2015

PF Dec 2015 - Standardized Tests are Beneficial - Pro Position

Resolved: On balance, standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States.

For part 1 of this analysis, click here.

Pro Position

Support for the Pro position of this resolution if bountiful and defensible in a properly framed debate. At the outset, the Pro debater needs to recognize there is significant negative press against standardized testing arising from a multitude of factors, many of which are unrelated to the question of whether or not standardized testing is beneficial to student education.  These negative factors poison the well and spread the perception that because some elements related to standardized testing are undesirable, then standardized testing in general must be undesirable.  This, of course, is a logical fallacy; a kind of fallacy of composition in which one draws conclusions about a whole based upon an examination of smaller portions. Standardized testing is a tool and like any tool can be designed for specific purposes. We shall examine those purposes and their effect on education and we will scratch the surface of an abundance of studies which measure the effect of testing on students. Much of the research extends back several decades and is still cited in research journals today.

A Basic Definition

To clarify the position, I will provide a definition for standardized tests which describes their nature and their purpose.

JCCHD (undated):
A Standardized test is a test that is given in a consistent or “standard” manner. Standardized tests are designed to have consistent questions, administration procedures, and scoring procedures. When a standardized test is administrated, is it done so according to certain rules and specifications so that testing conditions are the same for all test takers. Standardized tests come in many forms, such as standardized interviews, questionnaires, or directly administered intelligence tests. The main benefit of standardized tests is they are typically more reliable and valid than non-standardized measures. They often provide some type of “standard score” which can help interpret how far a child’s score ranges from the average.

Based upon this definition we can surmise that the test may be administered by a school in accordance with some over-arching direction or purpose and may be required by local administration or government or at the state level. A key principle is the test must be administered and assessed in a standardized and consistent way aligned to the purpose it is designed to serve.

Key Advantages

Standardized tests offer advantages to school system administrators which are not possible with in-class testing and assessments designed and graded by teachers.  The key advantages are objectivity, comparability, and accountability (Churchill 2015).  Depending on the type of test one teacher's evaluation of a student's test may be different than another teacher's evaluation of the same student's test results. This variability can result from a lack of objectivity in the design or assessment of the test and lead to different impressions of a student's level of achievement. Standardized tests are designed to greatly reduce subjective grading. Often, standardized tests are assessed by computers rather than humans. Not only does this reduce costs by eliminating the need to pay graders, it enforces objective standards. The second major advantage is seen when a local school board needs to determine the overall level of achievement of, say sixth-graders in several different schools within their jurisdiction, Standardized tests ensure that all of the sixth-grade students will be evaluated on a common, objective standard. This allows a fair evaluation of sixth-grade achievement and helps determine which schools or classes may be in need of improvement.  Objectivity and comparability are both necessary to realize the advantages linked to accountability.  School system administrators use the tests as a feedback mechanism for the schools and classes to alter curriculum or resources in such a way they can benefit student achievement.  Accountability requires the individual schools and instructors demonstrate forward progress in achieving the goals of the school administration.

From Feedback to Blowback

I do want to spend a little time discussing the downside of standardized tests because I believe a thorough evaluation and acknowledgement of problems increases the Pro ethos.  Accountability is pushed by governments intent on maximizing their educational dollars. Obviously, an administration concerned with high costs will tend to view standardized tests as a mechanism for achieving goals for the least cost.  First, the cost of testing is relatively cheap and secondly standardized tests can potentially isolate problems in individual schools, classrooms, or teachers putting increased pressure on those systems and individuals. Moreover, politicians can use accountability to enhance their own political statuses.

Merrow (2001):
But the fundamental problem is that many schools and school districts use standardized test results more for accountability than understanding or diagnosis. I'm not blaming educators for this situation, because they're only following orders. H. D. Hoover of the University of Iowa defends testing but agrees we've gone overboard. He places the blame squarely on politicians. "They want quick fixes, and they like tests because they're cheap. They mandate external tests because to the public it looks like they're doing something about education when all they're doing is actually a very inexpensive 'quick fix.'"

When accountability increases pressure on school districts in a heavy-handed way, students are often re-categorized for failure to demonstrate achievement above a particular "cut-line" which alarms and often angers parents.  Teachers are pressured to increase the performance of students and some teachers are viewed as professionally incompetent.  All of this pressure results in negative attitudes about standardized testing and leads to abuses which have resulted in overly narrowed curriculum which focus entirely on the tests, and in extreme cases, cheating.  All of these negative impressions ripple through communities and result in the perception standardized tests are the problem. The link between the home and the administration is the classroom and the teachers themselves play a significant role in the success or failure of the testing programs.

Brown & Hattie (2012):
The belief systems of teachers are a significant factor in whether standardized tests can be educationally useful. Clearly, pre-existing beliefs that standardized tests are irrelevant can and will influence how teachers respond to the possibility of using tests educationally. But there are other options for understanding the purpose and nature of assessment; assessment can evaluate schools, it can evaluate or certify students, and it can be for improvement (Brown, 2008). For example, in the development of the asTTle standardized tests system, it was found that teachers who endorsed the conception of assessment related to “assessment is powerful for improving teaching” had higher interpretation scores on a test about the meaning of the asTTle test score reports (r = .34). In contrast, teachers who endorsed more strongly the conception of assessment as a means of evaluating or holding schools accountable had the lowest interpretation scores (r = -.21) (Hattie et al. 2006).Thus, successful use of standardized tests requires believing that they can contribute to improved teaching and student learning for the individuals in a teacher’s class. This belief leads to more accurate interpretation to the educationally useful information communicated in standardized test reports.[290]

We can see tests as simple measuring systems which serve as an important tool in guiding the educational development of students. Ultimately it is how those tools are used and people's attitudes about how the tools are used which guides perception of whether or not the tests are beneficial. No doubt it guides the perception of the PF debate judge as well.

The Benefit to Students

Testing is good. Whether designed by teachers in the classroom or nationally recognized experts in the field of childhood education. Testing allows parents and students to self-assess. This is necessary because students (and often parents as well) are overly positive in their evaluation of themselves.

Benjamin & Pashler (2015):
One of the reasons that tests are unappealing to some students and to their overweening parents is that tests fairly reveal what we do and do not know. This feedback can violate the positive feelings we hold about ourselves and our abilities, which are often inappropriately optimistic, especially in the classroom (Hacker, Bol, Horgan, & Rakow, 2000). This violation causes students to rate instructors more poorly (Isley & Singh, 2005) and to generate complicated but unsupported theories about supposed learning styles that their classrooms are failing to support (Pashler, McDaniel, Rohrer, & Bjork, 2009). What is of particular concern is the way that such inappropriately tuned self-assessments influence study behavior.[18]

Students who believe they do not need to study, will not study and parents who believe their children are meeting standards, will not push them to improve.  Testing reveals educational shortcomings which enable parents and students to react to the benefit of the student's education.

Wahlberg 2011:
Students benefit directly when they take tests that offer information on how well they have mastered the material intended for learning. School reading and mathematics skills, for example, can be precisely specified, and as students learn the skills, they benefit from ongoing information tailored to their specific, individual progress. Computers streamline this process by providing immediate feedback about correct and incorrect responses far more quickly and with much greater patience than teachers and tutors can provide.

The objective and rapid feedback given by standardized tests allows families to adjust their educational strategies sooner rather than later to their benefit.

Another important benefit arises when standardized exit examines are given sometime prior to graduation.  Students, face enormous peer-pressure throughout their time in school. At the higher achievement levels there is a great deal of pressure to achieve status; to be in the top 10% or to achieve the highest GPA because of the belief it enhances a students ability to get into the best colleges or land the best jobs.  But conversely, many students are under intense peer pressure to resist the high-stakes competition for school ranking and fall into a pattern of under-achievement as a strategy to maximize their personal welfare.

Bishop 1997:
Steinberg, Brown and Dornbush conclude similarly that "The adolescent peer culture in America demeans academic success and scorns students who try to do well in school (1996, p. 19)." Why are the studious called suck ups, dorks and nerds or accused of "acting white"? In part, it is because, since exams are graded on a curve, their study effort is making it more difficult for others to get top grades. When exams are graded on a curve or college admissions are based on rank in class, joint welfare is maximized if no one puts in extra effort. In the repeated game that results, side payments–friendship and respect–and punishments–ridicule, harassment and ostracism–enforce the cooperative "don't study" solution. If, by contrast, students are evaluated relative to an outside standard, they no longer have a personal interest in getting teachers off track or persuading each other to refrain from studying. Peer pressure demeaning studiousness should diminish.[6]

Standard tests and in particular, standardized exit examins change the game and provide an opportunity to evaluate students on their own merits rather than comparatively.

Bishop 1997:
Curriculum-based external exit exam systems (CBEEES) improve the signaling of academic achievement. As a result, colleges and employers are likely to give greater weight to academic achievement when they make admission and hiring decisions, so the rewards for learning should grow and become more visible. CBEEES also shift attention towards measures of absolute achievement and away from measures of relative achievement such as rank in class and teacher grades. By doing so, CBEEES ameliorate the problem of peer pressure against studying.[5]

The Benefit to Teachers

A properly applied accountability system based upon standardized testing can be beneficial to teachers which of course, ultimately benefits student education in general.  We have already shown how teacher attitudes and perceptions play a critical role in the success of these programs. Feedback is essential for teacher success.

Hamilton & Stecher 2015:
After all, standardized tests can do many things: tell policymakers and families how well students are doing overall; play a role in state and district accountability systems; contribute to teacher evaluations; and inform decision-making about student course placement. Some tests are used in other ways that include teachers adapting day-to-day instruction to meet individual student needs based on each student's test results.

In fact, it appears that teachers generally see positive benefits in standardized tests and in the associated accountability systems.  After all, teachers for the most part, are dedicated professionals who seek to benefit their students and ultimately their communities.

Hamilton, et al (2005):
Finally, teachers believe the SBA systems in their states have affected their schools, students, and themselves in a variety of positive ways, in particular by increasing the school’s focus on student learning. These positive effects were reported by teachers in schools that met their AYP targets as well as by teachers in schools that did not...[continued below]

Thus we see accountability can be positive even when systems fail to meet their targets. But the Pro side of this debate realizes the application of accountability is extremely important and as we have already discussed, teacher attitudes play a huge role in the success of these programs.

Hamilton, et al, continues:
[coninued from above]...At the same time, teachers express a number of concerns, particularly about staff morale, and their responses indicate that pressure to raise scores has led to some narrowing of curriculum. Majorities of teachers report that factors not under their control are hindering their efforts to improve student achievement. To the extent that teachers feel they lack the capacity to meet the accountability goals, it is likely that the pressure to meet AYP targets will lead to reduced morale and a greater temptation to focus narrowly on raising test scores to the exclusion of other important goals. [37-38]

We can conclude that teachers do understand and perceive benefits arising from increased focus upon student success and the capability to adjust their curriculum in ways which benefit the students in their classes.  Still, Pro cannot ignore that proper application of the accountability systems which spawn standardized tests are vital and we shall explore that in more detail below.

The Benefits to Administrators

Properly applied, a system of standardized tests can be effective tool for administrators to evaluate and adjust educational priorities to the benefit of their jurisdictions.

Wahlberg 2011:
If standardized tests are misused, of course, the program and student learning may be defective. When standardized tests are used appropriately, a great deal can be learned about how well schools function. That information allows educators and policymakers to make better-informed conclusions about how much students are learning, which in turn allows them to make better-informed decisions about improving programs.

It is a given that policymakers and administrators may narrow their focus to such a point it opens the door to abuses such as "teaching to the test" or cheating as I have previously mentioned.  "Teaching to the test" is seen as a negative in that it may restrict the autonomy of schools and teachers, but in answer to that argument, Pro may point out that often the goals of accountability are precisely in agreement with what the community expectations are for their school systems.

Figlio & Loeb 2011:
Monitoring provides incentives for those being monitored to appear as effective as possible against the metric being assessed. It is certainly possible, therefore, that educators could teach very narrowly to the specific material covered on the tests, and little or no generalizable learning outside of that covered on the test would take place (Koretz and Barron, 1998). This restriction on the domains of learning may not be a concern if the tests that come with high stakes for schools cover a wide range of material considered important by society; in fact, this “teaching to the test” may be desirable.[397]

Therefore is can be claimed "teaching to the test" can provide the capability to hit the key metrics required to achieve success in alignment with community expectations.

Approaches to Accountability

Thus far the Pro position has looked at the perceived benefits of standardized testing for the eduction of students in K-12 education systems. The biggest impact to education arises, not from the tests themselves (though we shall see, testing in and of itself is good) but rather from how the results are applied. So, when the sources discuss accountability it refers to how the results are used to properly determine the status of education within various school systems and how that knowledge can be used to drive progress in a way which benefits education and not just provide political gratification. Particular criticism of accountability metrics centers around the fact that students are often evaluated relative to standards determined by administrators. For example, the administration may decide all eighth-graders in the nation or the state should have this or that knowledge.  These kinds of standards are a kind of one-size-fits-all approach which ignores individual capabilities and are falling into disfavor.

Ladd & Lauen 2009:
The theory of action behind educational accountability is that by setting standards and measuring performance relative to standards, teachers will work harder and students will learn more. Increasingly, however, observers have argued for shifting the metric for school accountability away from the achievement status of a school’s students, as is the case under NCLB [No Child Left Behind], in favor of a metric based on students’ growth in achievement during the year (Hanushek and Raymond 2005; Ladd and Walsh 2002; Toch and Harris 2008).[2]

Two principle approaches to accountability have emerged and each is directed to different goals within the education system and as might be expected each has an up-side and a down-side.

Filio & Loeb 2011:
The two types of approaches—status and growth—measure different outcomes and tend to generate different objectives and incentives for schools. Status-based systems that focus on the percent of students who achieve at proficient levels seek to encourage schools to raise performance at least to that level (Krieg, 2008; Neal and Schanzenbach, 2010). This approach is appealing to many policy makers because it sets the same target for all groups of students and because it encourages schools to focus attention on the set of low performing students who in the past may have received little attention. Status based systems also have the advantage of being transparent. The goal of the growth model approach is to encourage schools to improve the performance of their students independently of the absolute level of that achievement. Such an approach is appealing to many people because of its perceived fairness. It explicitly takes into account the fact that where students end up is heavily dependent on where they start and the fact that the starting points tend to be highly correlated with family background characteristics. At the same time, the use of the growth model approach may raise political concerns, both because the public may find the approach less transparent than the status approach and because some see it as a way of letting schools with low average performance off the hook. [392]

The message for Pro, is the system in general works and it works well when the accountability is correctly used in accordance with generally accepted community standards of success.  And that is the point, really.  The standards and expectations are ultimately determined by the voters and residents of the communities which seek to maximize the welfare of their children.

Testing is Good

In researching this topic, I came across an interesting paper by Benjamin and Pashler discussing the psychology of testing in general and its beneficial effects on student learning. It is particularly interesting because one can examine the topic from a group of experts who have no real stake in standardized testing other than to study the effects of testing on human learning and extend the research to standardized testing as a genre of generalized testing.

Benjamin and Pashler discuss research which proves taking tests has a beneficial impact on students' long-term memory retention and supports a case favoring frequent testing (Benjamin & Pashler 2015:15). Additionally, testing improves cognition and the ability of learners to construct new conclusions by perceiving the relationships between facts (Benjamin & Pashler 2015:16). The paper also looks at the question of student motivation and addresses the concerns about narrow curriculum as having potentially beneficial outcomes.

Benjamin & Pashler 2015:
One of the most direct ways in which tests promote learning is by motivating students to study. The benefits of this effect can be controversial when it is believed that the test measures unimportant skills or when teachers focus on the test to the exclusion of other materials, two common criticisms of the current standardized tests for the Common Core. But the curriculum for the Common Core, as well as its attendant tests, is fluid and likely to experience considerable development. Students who take regular quizzes in the classroom are more likely to attend unrequired meetings (Fitch, Drucker, & Norton, 1951) and exhibit better class attendance (Wilder, Flood, & Stromsnes, 2001), both of which are known to increase student achievement. Moreover, tests with a clear agenda can focus teachers’ and students’ activities onto materials that are broadly considered to be valuable.[19]

The Facts and Figures

So now we can conclude this position with a look at the research.  The studies cited were conducted using a variety of methods mostly comprised of accumulating achievement measures under various scenarios and drawing statistical conclusions against various metrics.  While I do believe citing statistics and facts has a positive influence on judges I also believe that going too deeply into studies will tend to diminish the impacts of conclusions as judges become overwhelmed in numbers.  Here is a little of what I could find.

Carnoy & Loeb 2002:
Our results indicate a positive and significant relationship between the strength of states' accountability systems and math achievement gains at the 8th-grade level across racial/ethnic groups. Surprisingly, students' achievement at higher levels of math skills is also related significantly to stronger state accountability, suggesting that focusing on higher standards and how well schools do on tests may also improve higher level skills. This may result because schools with high-achieving students also feel the pressure to improve their students' performance. Indeed, there is some evidence that better perfonning schools have greater capacity to respond to external accountability pressures (Carnoy et al., in press). [320]

Figlio and Loeb examined the results of a plethora of studies and their paper serves as useful clearinghouse for debaters interested in going deeper in the research of acclaimed sources. This particular snippet is interesting because it mentions one particular factor that may actually work against instructors.  The influence of home interference in teaching methods can skew results as parents pass along their own (perhaps undesirable) learning methods.

Figlio & Loeb 2011:
Though no one approach or study is flawless and many inconsistencies remain, taken as a whole, the body of research on implemented programs suggests that school accountability improves average student performance in affected schools, at least in general. Experimental evaluations of test score reporting, such as Andrabi et al.’s (2009) new results from Pakistan, also support the notion that accountability can boost student outcomes While, in general, the findings of the available studies indicate achievement growth in schools subject to accountability pressure, the estimated positive achievement effects of accountability systems emerge far more clearly and frequently for mathematics than for reading. This pattern is particularly clear when the outcome measure is based on a national test, such as NAEP, but it also emerges in some of the district or state level studies such as Figlio and Rouse (2006). In part this pattern reflects the fact that some authors report results only for math, although that is presumably because of the smaller effects for reading. The larger effects for math are intuitively plausible and are consistent with findings from other policy interventions such as voucher programs (Zimmer and Bettinger, 2008) and tax and expenditure limitations (Downes and Figlio, 1998). Compared to reading skills, math skills are more likely to be learned in the classroom, the curriculum is well-defined and sequenced, and there is less opportunity for parents to substitute for what goes on the classroom (Cronin et al., 2005, p. 58).[410]

Finally, it is shown that regardless of the type of accountability employed, beneficial results are measured.

Ladd & Lauen 2009:
Using a ten-year panel data set and value-added models of student achievement with both student and school fixed effects, we find that neither type of school based accountability system generates distributionally neutral effects on student achievement in the schools subject to accountability pressure. Moreover, the distributional effects differ depending on whether the system holds schools accountable for the growth or the status of their students’ learning. This first conclusion should not be surprising. It simply reflects the fact that educators do indeed respond to incentives, and that the incentives to pay attention to students at different points of the achievement distribution differ between the two approaches. The policy challenge is to design a system consistent with the goals of the policy.[33]

Thus, we conclude standardized testing is beneficial to K-12 education in the United States. Is it perfect? No.  But the evidence discussed above shows it is a fluid system that is evolving and learning from its mistakes.  I guess we could conclude standardized testing is good for standardized testing.

Alderman 2015:
Today’s eagerness to jettison our commitment to leave “no child behind” is a shame, not just because better tests are on the horizon, but also because it worked. Fourth and eighth grade achievement scores of black, Hispanic and low-income students have never been higher. High school graduation rates are at an all-time high. And researchers repeatedly link No Child Left Behind’s emphasis on traditionally underperforming groups to real improvements in schools around the country.

Thus we urge a Pro ballot.

Click here for Con


Bishop, JH (1997). Do curriculum-based external exit exam systems enhance student achievement? (CAHRS Working Paper #97-28). Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, School of Industrial and Labor Relations, Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies.

Brown, G. T. L., & Hattie, J. A. (2012). The benefits of regular standardized assessment in childhood education: Guiding improved instruction and learning. In S. Suggate & E. Reese (Eds.) Contemporary debates in child development and education (pp. 287-292). Accessed 11/7/2015 at:

Carnoy, M and Loeb, S (2002), Does External Accountability Affect Student Outcomes? A Cross-State Analysis, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, Winter 2002, Vol. 24, No. 4, pp. 305-331. accessed 11/6/2015 at:

Churchill, A (2015), Bless the tests: Three reasons for standardized testing, Thomas B. Fordham Institute, (March 18, 2015) accessed 11/7/2015 at:

Hamilton, L and Stecher, B (2015), Make tests smarter, USNews & World Report, Nov. 2, 2015. Accessed 11/7/2015 at:

JCCHD (undated), Johnson Center for Child and Development