Educational Goals

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.

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4 Responses to “Educational Goals”

  1. Anonymous Says:

    I think you are referring to what are commonly called High Stakes Tests, or the State Tests, which are administered within 48 states (I think Kansas and another state do something different) usually in the Spring. Standardized Tests is a broader term which, through a singular form and instructions, all students are taking the same assessment, thereby ensuring the resulting data is “apples to apples.” Indeed, High Stakes Tests are Standardized, but so are many, many other assessments found in schools which serve much different purposes. For example, a good indicator of an elementary student’s success is their ability to read a passage fluently. It carries a strong correlation into mathematical reasoning, comprehension, written language, spelling, scientific reasoning, etc. One of the products my company sells is a fluency standardized test, where students nationwide read the same passages for a minute, and when WRC’s (Words Read Correctly per minute) are aggregated together in a “norm” chart, a simple analysis will tell me how many words the 50th percentile 3rd grader can read, for example. This normative data also can be used to identify students who are at-risk of falling behind their peers, if a 3rd grader is reading at the 10th percentile as compared to their peers, you would probably want to conduct an instructional intervention and work on getting that student’s fluency level back to an acceptable level. Standardized Tests of this nature cannot be “taught to” either…it’s just fluency, or the ability to read a passage fluently based on WRC (Words Read Correctly). In fact, if the teacher is teaching to this type of test, the end effect remains positive…the student can read.
    This type of standardized assessment is both short, curriculum agnostic, and important in terms of providing data to be used to identify at-risk students, evaluate curriculum, evaluate schools, and multiple other treasures.
    In terms of High Stakes tests, Meh. I think they should address Basic Skills in terms of mathematical computation and broader reasoning skills (time math, measurement, supermarket math), a literacy comprehension component, and a written expression component. I would consider these pillars the backbone of any education. The assessment shouldn’t be longer than 45 minutes, and in no way will this data be used for such ugly practices as retention. These should be used as a universal screening tool nationwide, where the data could be utilized is a great many ways.
    ANYWAY, I am rambling. I love the blog! love the topic! Hope all is well and would love to see you when you come to St. Paul.
    James Henke (

  2. bretbenesh Says:

    “High Stakes” is what I want
    Hi Jim,
    It is good hearing from you. I hope you are well, and that your Tom Selleck mustache is thriving.
    First, I was sloppy with my language–“high stakes” testing is what I meant. Thank you for the correction.
    I have a question for you about your WRC standardized (but not high stakes) exams: why use “norm” charts? It seems like it would be more worthwhile to set reasonable goals for third graders, and then measure students against that standard. Measuring students against norms relies on the assumption that a student at the 50th percentile is where a student should be.
    I once read of a teacher who, at a parent-teacher conference, told a parent, “Your daughter is the smartest student in my class.” The parent, of course, beamed. The teacher followed up with, “Of course, this is the dumbest class I have ever had…”
    I understand that it is likely easier to measure against the norm, but are there other justifications for doing this?

    • Anonymous Says:

      Re: “High Stakes” is what I want
      I am loving this blog! Regarding norm charts vs. a criterion for evaluating student WRC’s…either are valid options. If you want to evaluate a student’s fluency based upon a national norm table, which is what most of our customers use, it is a justifiable means for evaluating an individual student’s fluency. At the same time, if you were to administer these CBM’s across an entire grade level, you would not only be able to identify your at risk students, but also be able to determine the effectiveness of the curriculum your school/district is using. By comparing the “local” data against national norms, the relative failure and/or success of your student body can be determined based this simple comparison. Perhaps student success is attributed to other causes? By adjusting other variables like teacher-student ratios or instruction time focused on language arts, perhaps individual schools and/or districts can hone in on weaknesses.
      In response to the smartest student in the dumbest class comment…isn’t there a tremendous value in knowing that you have qualitative data to state with confidence that this class is the dumbest? I mean, identifying the problems is the first step to solving them.

      • bretbenesh Says:

        Re: “High Stakes” is what I want
        I think that, in practice, using norm tables is an effective way to judge fluency (more about this below). But it is an awful way to do things in theory. In order to justify its use, one would need to do one of the following:

        Set as a goal that students simply need to do better than other students, rather than truly being fluent, or
        Have some way of knowing that, nationally, the average student is exactly meeting our fluency goals.

        I feel I need the “exactly” in the last statement. If the average student is above what we think a student “should” know, then we will be diagnosing capable students as underachieving simply because they are below the mean. If the average student is below what students “should” know, then we will miss intervening with students who have fluency problems, yet still outperform the average student.
        I understand that it is difficult to nail down the Platonic ideal of what students “should” know, but this is our job as educators (if we do not do this, how could we ever grade anything that a student hands in?). However, I have strong objections that we simply punt on this issue and decide the goal is to be “at least average nationally.” This is in part due to the reasons described in the previous paragraph, and in part due to the fact that half of our students will, by definition, be “not succeeding” (which means that our schools can never be a success).
        Okay, that was the theory. Back to the “in practice,” which I conceded is probably fine. Do you know of evidence that the national average for fluency is close to what students “should” know? If there is evidence, then I do not have any objection, assuming that we continually verify that this is indirectly measuring what we want.
        As far as dumb classes: I agree that it is tremendously useful to have qualitative (or quantitative) data that indicates how the class is doing. My counter is that “Good data is ideal, but no data is better than bad data.” Similar to what I wrote in the second paragraph, bad data can mislead, and so we need to be careful of what we use to make decisions.
        As an example: students evaluate my teaching every year. I get good evaluations every semester. However, I think that the evaluations reflect my relationship with the students more than my teaching. This is a problem, because relationships are only a part of teaching. Assuming that I am correct in what the evaluations measure, it is entirely possible that a professor could be a nice, friendly person who teaches the students incorrect things. As far as the college and the professor know, the professor should be given a promotion, whereas the reality of the situation is that the professor should be fired.
        I’m done for now, James. I await your response. It is great talking to you again!

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