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Arguing about education via anecdote

December 8, 2011

A WashingtonPost.com post from three days ago — When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids — has been generating a lot of buzz. I’m not sure it’s for the right reasons, though.

In brief, a school board member in Orange County, Florida took the standardized math and reading tests given to 10th-grade students in his district, scored poorly, and concluded that the tests are deeply flawed.

The school board member is to be commended for undergoing these tests firsthand, and the experience may have afforded him good insight into the tests’ limitations. But I’m not ready to simply swallow the reasoning that can be paraphrased as, “I’m a successful person in the real world, and I did badly on the tests; therefore the tests are lousy indicators of how well our schools are preparing students for the real world.” That is one plausible interpretation, but here are some others.

• “Like some other students, I am not good at standardized tests. I tend to score poorly even on fair tests that are aligned to well-reviewed standards. I am a successful educator due in large part to strengths that cannot easily be measured by mass-administered tests. Therefore my poor test performance is neither surprising nor a cause for great concern, but simply a reminder that no brief standardized test can perfectly predict real-world performance on complex tasks.”

• “I have been out of high school for decades, during which time I have forgotten almost all of what I learned back then, save the content that remains relevant to my work as an adult. Also, the curriculum has changed since I was in school. My poor performance on the test simply reflects that, as a highly specialized professional who graduated a long time ago, I do not remotely resemble the test’s target audience of young, not-yet-specialized students.”

[Other insighful comments on this topic can be found at Cassandra’s Tears, Scientific American, and Uncertain Principles.]

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