Thursday, July 17, 2008

You can't improve what you can't measure

I'm still responding to the emails and comments from my last post. Thanks, all, for the good discussions.

Today I want to respond to a comment I've heard many times -- most recently from my long-lost high school buddy Vihao:
"standardized education assumes everybody is the same. i say get rid of standardized tests and make curriculum more flexible to allow students to spend more time pursuing subjects they enjoy..."

I completely agree that teaching needs to involve students and speak to the things that are relevant and interesting to them. If it were possible, I'd support an IEP for every child. Check out for an interesting extrapolation of this theme.

But I don't believe that embracing individualized learning means we have to reject standardized testing. Let me try an analogy.

A couple of weeks ago, my wife and I moved to a new apartment. Except for campus and Kroger, we have to get on the highway to go just about anywhere. Since there are three ways to get to the onramp (and because we are both Type A people), we timed ourselves driving to and from the highway several times and compared. The verdict? Dhu Varren to Green to 23 going south, and Barton to I-14 going north or west. (Not that you care; this is just an analogy.)

Picking the best way to get to the highway is like improving schools. There are lots of reasonable sounding ways to accomplish both tasks, but to do either intelligently, you need some metric to use as a baseline for comparison. For roads, the metric was our dashboard clock. For schools, the best available metric is standardized tests.

You can't improve what you can't measure. The paradox here is that standardized tests can give teachers more flexibility in the way they run their classrooms.

PS - A sidenote that I have to include every time I talk about tests: many of the standardized tests currently in use are bad or really bad. This isn't because we don't know how to do better; it's because many states put in slipshod assessments hoping that accountability reform would just go away. We definitely need to devote more attention to fixing these badly designed testing systems.


Sherry said...

I think it would be great if American schools were better at recognizing that lots of kids are not going to go to college. In New Zealand (and in Australia, I think) the last year (or maybe two) of high school is optional, and it is primarily used as prep for uni.

Of course, I do think it is important that students leave high school knowing a lot of basic things- basic algebra, how to write a simple argument, a general understanding of government, etc. But most people do not need to study calculus or Ancient Greek history. Those classes are great for those who want them. But, for the non-college-going kids, I think there needs to be more job-training in high school, or at least really viable options within local community colleges.

My district offered a beautician school, an automechanic training school, and maybe one or two other sorts of trade programs.

And while I doubt there is a way to accommodate everybody, I think we can do better to accommodate more.

Vihao said...

i don't disagree with what you said about the tests. i work at a business intelligence software company. we're all about metrics. i run my team based on metrics. the question was specifically about boredom, so my response was geared towards that aspect of education. as it is, schools are judged in part on how their students do in these standardized tests. i'm assuming there are monetary implications to doing well or doing poorly. if so, this puts pressure on the schools to produce the best test results possible. given finite time and resources, i'm sure schools will focus more on those tests and sideline everything else. the students are still learning, but not necessarily something they are interested in, and if that's the case, you're going to get boredom.

Karen said...

great blog, abe! i recently went to a hearing in the senate building where the topic up for discussion was multicultural ed. the panelists suggested that requirements for culturally competent instruction should be written into NCLB. it made me consider a proposal i read once (i can't remember where) that suggested that we test students on their "cultural intelligence." i say all this to suggest that we could consider expanding our ideas of what could be tested--can we test student and teacher efficacy? self-esteem? love of learning? sure, i think so. and i think it could be tested in the same standardized format as mathematics or reading. it wouldn't be perfect and it would increase the amount of testing students have, but it would give us some new measurements, broaden our defintion of public education, motivate educators to work on the development of the whole child, etc. i'm not sure that more testing is the answer, but i'm inclined to think that it may be.

Abe said...

Vihao -
Fair enough. I asked a utopian question about boredomless schools and you answered by saying, in essence, "Tests force everyone to pay attention to the same things. If I'm not interested in those things, test prep is going to be boring." Then I lifted that idea and put it in the decidedly non-utopian context of modern American education. My bad on the bait-and-switch; I didn't mean to misrepresent.

I wonder if this means that Calvin's ideal school would have no tests, or dramatically different kinds of tests.

Vihao said...

i'm going to go off on a slight tangent. all of my new engineers start employment by going through our company's bootcamp, which is administered by our education department. for three weeks they are completely immersed in the workings of our product. at the end of each week they take a test designed to gauge the their understanding of the material. after that test they come to me for an oral exam. i can tell you this, just because somebody passed a test it doesn't mean they understand what they have learned. i see a lot of regurgitation, figuratively. i'll hear the same buzzwords over and over again. most of the time they'll define what something is correctly, but when asked to build something or to apply a concept, they have a much harder time. tests are important, but you have to test the right things to make them matter.

Abe said...

Sherry -
Your comment would be met with stony stares at the ed school here at Michigan. Any hint of "tracking" is non-PC, because tracking was used as a de facto way to segregate black and white students for so long.

Unfortunately, this has the effect of making it hard to talk about reasonable differentiation in curriculum, which is just plain silly.
- Abe