Friday, November 21, 2014

A little knowledge is a dangerous thing

I have noticed that having just a little knowledge about something can lead to problems. Anyone at the beginning stages of learning a language has probably faced a situation where you say something well enough to a native speaker who then thinks you actually speak the language as they begin rattling off sentences that you have no hope of understanding. Or you begin working on a simple leaky faucet that becomes a major overhaul of your pipes and only a plumber can put it right. This is also called “getting in over your head” and it is exactly where some public school administrators are at when it comes to standardized testing, except that in this case the problems are not individualized but passed onto students, their families and ultimately our society as a whole.

The appeal of standardized testing is easy to understand. It promises to be an objective measure of a student’s knowledge or cognitive ability in an easily digestible and usable form. This “objective measure” has all of the trappings of science which lends it an illusory sense of  credibility. Tradition and economic realities have solidified the status of standardized testing and there is an assumption that the tests do what the creators of the tests say they do. These are powerful rationales which seem to make sense but they represent only a partial knowledge of something which is in fact even larger and very difficult to understand in its fullness. Unfortunately, the appeal is built on a false premise and therefore draws  incorrect conclusions.

The truth about the appeal of standardized testing is that it is an easy way out. Reducing students to scores makes it easier to manage their educations and relieves teachers of the very difficult task of assessing them using more in depth and meaningful methods. Although our society is currently caught up in a love affair with “big data”, there are limits to its accuracy and usefulness, and it can lead to lazy thinking which in turn leads to false conclusions. This lazy thinking is what bothers me most because administrators use data that is descriptive as if it were prescriptive, treating the end result as a symptom that can be isolated and fixed with specific interventions. That approach is “finger in the dike” patch work and lulls its users into a sense that they are accomplishing something because they can point to the numbers with reverence. But, as Stephen Jay Gould so thoroughly demonstrates in The Mismeasure of Man, this type of testing is inherently biased and is, in fact, based on 19th century racist theories about the inferiority of Black Africans and Native Americans.

This sorting of human intelligence has been used in the past as a justification for social policies such as slavery and the displacement of native populations and military capability. It is now being used to maintain or channel people into classes. An incomplete understanding of the background of the tests yields an incomplete understanding of what the tests do. The marketers of these tests highlight the ability of the tests to measure some cognitive functions such as recall or reading comprehension without mentioning that the tests are even better at measuring economic status. Another omission is that these tests can not measure intelligence and do not have the ability to predict individual success. But hey, it’s marketing.

We’ve been sold a shoddy bill of goods. But quality control has been hindered by those with too little knowledge and too much authority. Ignoring the political economics of standardized testing whether through denial or ignorance limits our ability in the education community to appreciate quality education when we see it. It limits our ability to recognize where we have gone wrong. It’s time to stop accepting mediocrity with a smile. I think it is time to “return to sender” and stuff these tests where they belong.

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