My goal for today is to discuss large-scale educational goals. I expect this to be a running theme in this weblog, since it is an essential, yet under-recognized, part of education.
This theme will start with one example: standardized testing. This is a polarizing issue in education. One side, which is currently “winning,” claims that standardized testing is essential. We cannot know if students learned what they should unless students are given an unbiased exam. Moreover, standardized exams give us information about the teachers and schools; if too many students fail a standardized exam, it is evidence that a teacher and/or school is failing. Largely, standardized tests are the only true way to establish accountability.
The other side claims that standardized testing hurts education. Among other reasons, it is easiest to write a standardized exam about memorized facts; testing higher learning skills is considerably more difficult–and therefore much rarer. This gives us a skewed view of how the students are doing; “no information” would be better than “wrong information.” This problem compounds itself when teachers “teach to the test,” favoring bite-sized facts to complex problem solving. Furthermore, some standardized exams predict family income better than future grades. This could lead to promising students from poorer backgrounds to be denied access to education. Finally, standardized tests are expensive, and school districts could spend the money better elsewhere.
I did my best to be fair to both sides (I have my own opinion), although my arguments for each is by no means exhaustive.
There is debate about standardized testing in some circles, and arguments like these are thrown back and forth at each other. However, I think a more constructive step would be to delve deeper to determine the education goals and attitudes of both sides. What follows is my attempt to determine what kind of attitudes both sides might have about education.
Pro-standardized testing attitude: Students need to learn what we teach them, and we teach them things that are easy to measure–either a student knows how to add, or she doesn’t. Because of this, we need to provide incentive to the students to put in the work to learn. One way of doing this is testing–the student will learn what we teach in order to do well on the exam.
Anti-standardized testing: While facts are important, it is more important for students to develop habits and thought patterns that will make them a successful citizen. Knowing the fifty states is nice, but it is more important that students develop a habit of providing evidence when making assertions (and requiring evidence when hearing assertions).
If I were to have the pro-standardized testing attitude, it would be obvious to me that standardized testing is essential. With the other attitude, it would be clear that standardized testing would be difficult to administer, at best. Because of this, I believe it would be better for the sides to attempt to reach agreement on the educational goals, rather than standardized testing. Even if both sides were to agree on standardized testing, we would have only solved one symptom; the underlying cause of the dispute–different attitudes toward education–would linger and create new disagreements.
I propose that we all identify our educational goals and attitudes before we decide what tools (such as standardized testing) would best meet these goals.