• Educational Testing and Learning

    You may not know it, but I work for a for-profit education company.  I’d like to take a few minutes to talk about US education and things like testing.

    The current US educational system is state-of-the-art 1940s technology.  The teaching methods basically haven’t changed ever.  Unfortunately, the material has grown exceedingly complex.  Sixty years ago, only the brightest and wealthiest went to college.  Many people didn’t even graduate high school.  In fact, the GED program was developed to provide high school equivalency certification to the WWII vets returning home.  It was never intended to be a forever thing.

    But the teaching methods are the same.  Here are the facts, memorize them, good luck on the test.  But ask any educational researcher and they will tell you that is, by far, the worst method for education.

    In this day and age, any 8-year-old with a decent cell phone can look up any factual knowledge in the world.  My boss is fond of saying that “content is dead”.  What he means is that there is little point in filling kids’ heads with fact, when they can hop on the internet and learn the tensile strength of any of a dozen varieties of steel in seconds.

    Our modern educational system needs to focus on skills and reasoning ability.  Unfortunately, things like this are very difficult to teach.  And teachers often don’t have those skills themselves, because they are a product of our education system.

    The ability to critically examine content and judge its worth, accuracy, validity, is a very difficult skill to learn.  As we’ve seen in the recent presidential election, one can become a billionaire without learning these kinds of skills.  As xkcd says “To the surprise of pundits, numbers continue to be the best system for determining which of two things is larger”.

    Unfortunately, this utter lack of critical thinking in our society has done things like make Mitt Romney a valid candidate for the highest office in the land, with almost 50% of the popular vote.  I maintain that anyone who can think critically and judge the worth of various sources of information would not vote for Romney.  That’s just a notion though, not even quite a working hypothesis.

    Some of the testing programs that I’m familiar with are beginning to see this.  They are focusing on skills much more than content knowledge.  Let me say that when these tests go live, the student population is going to be very, very shocked.

    Here’s the thing about testing, even standardized testing, that a lot of people do not understand.  It is being used completely incorrectly by nearly every organization and school that uses it.  Would you blame the toaster oven for not cooking the Thanksgiving turkey very well?  No, you don’t blame the tool because some idiot decided to use for something other than its intended purpose.

    Standardized tests are not good for judging the quality of teachers, the quality of schools, the quality of educational systems, or philosophies of education.  What’s missing in this list of things that people use standardized testing for?  The people actually taking the test.

    Any competent scientist will tell you that you can’t judge a variable that’s not being tested for.  If you want to test teacher quality, then test teachers.  Not students.

    Research shows that the best predictor of school results on standardized tests is not teachers, it’s socioeconomic status of the students.  Teachers really have little impact on the test scores of the students.  Sure, you may get an exceptional teacher who can turn around her one class of students, but the rest of the school probably doesn’t have her skill in teaching.

    So, what’s the purpose of educational testing?  The sole purpose is to judge the student’s knowledge and skills of the curriculum.  These tests can’t be used to say if kids should go to college, or anything else.  The only thing these tests can measure is the student’s knowledge and skills of the curriculum.  Yes, I’ve said it twice, because it’s vitally important.

    If the curriculum sucks, then that’s not the tests’ fault.

    In an ideal world, where boards of education understand this, the test would be administered and the students would be remediated on the areas of the curriculum that they lack.  It’s a complete and utter waste that this is not done.

    The data that testing companies collect from standardized tests is immense.  We can look at a student’s response to an item and, in a well crafted item, determine what misconception they have that led them to the wrong answer.  “Oh little Johhny missed this question because he didn’t remember that in the order of operations, parentheses come before division”.  Yes, we can actually make statements like that on for these tests.

    Most of the time, we can tell when a student was guessing on a question in the test.  We can generate a report that can tell a teacher exactly which areas of the curriculum the student needs assistance.  We can, on some tests, even tell what areas of a specific curricula line item the tester is having trouble with.  We can identify which skills are missing.

    There’s been decades of educational research that goes into these types of tests and all that fantastic information is boiled down to “pass/fail” and the school’s score (at least in Texas).

    That’s the problem with standardized testing.  It’s just that it is used incorrectly.

    I predict that in 15 years, we won’t recognize modern education systems.  I think that the lead taken by educational companies, education researchers, and progressive school districts that are actually interested in education (instead of football) will begin a massive change in how students learn.  Taking the lessons learned from programs in Africa, students will have to responsible for their own education.  Cooperative education will be emphasized.  Problem solving and critical thinking will be the only required learning topics, content will come from those.

    A personal example: I could go back to school for a Master’s degree or a Ph.D., but why?  I can pick up a peer-reviewed research paper in almost any field, read it, and understand it.  No, I can’t do the advanced math and statistics, but I don’t use those in my day job anyway.  I don’t really need those skills (I have psychometricians for that).  In other words, I can learn whatever I want to, whenever I want to.  Yes, my knowledge is pretty eclectic, but I have no problems learning new skills or new content.  Not because I’m intrinsically smarter than other people, but because I have a unique skill set.

    I have learned how to learn.  Once we install that skill in our kids, they can, literally, do anything.

    Category: CultureEducationSociety


    Article by: Smilodon's Retreat