Friday, March 18, 2011

Mandated outcomes and truth behind high stakes exams

I listened to David Berliner’s keynote address at MACTE (Michigan Association of Colleges for Teacher education).  I found myself nodding in agreement throughout his speech.
 “The narrowing of the US curriculum, especially among the working class and the poor, even as the American people say they do not want this and it works against the best interest of American Industry
I feel the same way about the curriculum in my province.  Teachers are given scripts to follow so that the bureaucrats, many of whom do not teach anymore, can say “We know students are learning something”.  What they feel to realize is that the scripts are more limiting and constraining the education system instead of liberating it.   Instead of having lessons focused on deep understanding and true critical thinking, teachers are forced to skim the surface of many topics.  Here is the sad truth behind the Biology 30 curriculum in my province.  I fear that many don’t want us to teach students how to critically think….because these students might actually do it!
“An educated person has the ability and inclination to use judgment and imagination in solving the problems that confront them at work and at home, and to participate in the maintenance of democracy”
Education should not be about teaching students skills, but actually showing them how to use such skills.   When we focus on procedural and conceptual ideas, but never talk about problem solving, students will only learn the WHAT part of outcomes and never the WHY.  There is a difference between students learning in a class, and wanting to learn in a class.
A student, who could correctly calculate the area of a rectangle, was asked “How much carpet is needed in a room 8 feet by 10 feet?” He replied with “How would I know?”.  This student answered 10 out of 10 questions on an exam no problem.  I would hope most would agree there is a problem! 
Students who can remember facts, algorithms, and procedures, but never know when to apply them will be successful at Trivial Pursuit, but not at life.
A quote from Charles Dickens Hard Times London
"Now, what I want is, Facts. Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!"

"In this life, we want nothing but Facts, sir; nothing but Facts!" The speaker, and the schoolmaster, and the third grown person present, all backed a little, and swept with their eyes the inclined plane of little vessels then and there arranged in order, ready to have imperial gallons of facts poured into them until they were full to the brim
The sad reality is that some educators believe it is as easy as the opening heads up and we can just pour facts in.  This quote is 120 years old, and still some classes and tests are designed this way.
We can also go back further to:
"I must study politics and war that my sons may have liberty to study mathematics and philosophy." -- John Adams

Schools need to start giving students liberty and stop the perputation of mandating students to take certain courses! 
In 1975 Campbell stated the following law:
"The more any quantitative social indicator is used for social decision-making, the more subject it will be to corruption pressures and the more apt it will be to distort and corrupt the social processes it is intended to monitor."
And follows his law with..
"achievement tests may well be valuable indicators of general school achievement under conditions of normal teaching aimed at general competence. But when test scores become the goal of the teaching process, they both lose their value as indicators of educational status and distort the educational process in undesirable ways. (Similar biases of course surround the use of objective tests in courses or as entrance examinations.)"

When any indicator, such as high stakes exams, take on too much value it corrupts the people who deal with these indicators.  I believe this is what is currently happening in our education system.  I fear that, in some schools, the quality of instruction from a teacher is judged, not by classroom experiences, anecdotal comments, students’ experiences, but solely by their high stake exam marks.  As by Campbell’s law, such scrutiny around these scores is causing the teachers, and administrators, to become corrupt.  The corruption can be seen by “test prep”, or “teaching to the test”.  Imagine how much learning could occur if every minute spent on preparing students for an exam was spent on teaching a deeper understanding of a concept.

This now brings the validity of high stakes exams into question; the higher the stakes the higher the corruption but the lower the validity.  Due to the high stakes on some exams, teachers are forced to start seeing their students as “Test successors” and “Test suppressors”, not as students.  Schools have actually been caught giving certain classes certain teachers, based on their potential to pass a high stakes test.  Now a scary example,

“Kevin, who is a high achiever and suffers greatly from Asthma, was writing a high stakes government exam.  During the test, Kevin is having troubles breathing and asks to leave.  The teacher asked Kevin to first complete his exam then take care of his asthma”

There is a school in Virginia that realized if they fed their students breakfast, through a free breakfast program, they achieved better during the day.  This school, on high stakes testing days, gave the students an extra 100-200 calories at breakfast and the scores increased by 8 points.  Sadly, after test week, the school went back to the old breakfast program. 
This school understands the merit behind eating healthy in the morning, but only provides a sufficient amount of food during test week.  This is similar to farmers fattening pigs before taking them to market….DISGUSTING!
This is what happens when we see students as scores and data and not as people.


  1. Sorry in advance, but this is by far the lamest argument I have seen.

    Any teacher that does stuff like what you describe has an ethics problem LONG before the tests arrive on the scene. Blaming the tests on the teacher's lack of humanity or lack of ethical judgment is like blaming the rape victim for wearing lipstick.

  2. Are actually denying that putting emphasis on these high stakes exams DO NOT create corruption?

  3. It's a solid point, though i'm not sure if proper blame is being allocated. We actually have no idea what the public demands from a curriculum and an education program since we cannot vote with our income. We know that that its probably somewhere between all-day recess and hand-smacking-drill-and-kill. I would assume that some parents might want high stakes testing, if that somehow translates into giving their child an edge for college entrance exams...others like us, wouldn't.

  4. You wrote: "Are actually denying that putting emphasis on these high stakes exams DO NOT create corruption? "

    Yeah, I am, actually.

    I don't think high-stakes exams create corruption. I'm pretty sure I could give high-stakes test for years without resorting to cheating, teaching to-the-test, or doing anything but making sure I taught the material well and helped kids to learn it. How am I so sure? Because I've done it, and never felt the urge to cheat.

    If that urge creeps up on you, and you give in to it, I suggest that it isn't because of a high-stakes test.

    It's because that character flaw was there to start with. And that bothers me, because I thought better of you than that.

  5. I would love to see you stand in front of those teachers who are responsible for the marks on these exams and say that. What response do you think you will hear? Responses of agreement? I have a sneaky suspicion that you might hear some laughter.

    I can tell you first hand, that I have witnessed teachers being moved departments SOLELY on these high stake exam marks.

    Also, if you truly believe that there is no such thing as "test prep", "teaching to the test", or other corrupt pracitices going on, you are simply delusional.

  6. I didn't say any of those things, Dave ... stop ducking the issue. If those teachers did the things you are accusing them of, then THEY are the problem, not the tests.

    You seem to think that you can absolve them of their responsibility by simply blaming the exams for their lack of humanity or professionalism.

    About the alleged example of the teachers only feeding the kids properly on test days, I agree that it's disgusting (if it really is true); but it still isn't the fault of the test. It's the fault of the teachers who are displaying this appaling lack of humanity.

    Blaming their unethical behaviour on the exam, and not on them, is what's disgusting.

  7. You argument is "Don't blame guns, blame the people who kill others with those guns". At close glance I understand, but disagree with you putting ALL the blame on the teachers and ZERO on exams.

    Campbell's law describes that, by putting such emphasis on these tests, is the reason of corruption. Have you asked these "bad" teachers, WHY they do test prep? maybe, just maybe, you will see that they feel they are forced to!

    I will call you to task; if you taught these courses that have high stakes exams, and NEVER did test prep or taught to the test then I would say you are one in a million! But....taking your word for it, is hard for me to do.

  8. Asked my followers to comment:

  9. @anonymous: absolving the policy makers, administrators and exams and placing all the accountability on the teachers and students seems to be an odd position to take.

    What role do you serve? Perhaps you are an administrator or policy maker who would benefit from these exams remaining in their current high stakes format?

    Campbell's law may be an inconvenient social science law, but that doesn't make it less real.