Saturday, March 13, 2010

Test Score Obsession

I read an interesting article in the Atlanta Journal Constitution last week entitled “Analytical Learning is the Big Loser in Test Score Obsession.” The article was written by Shannon Howrey, Assistant Professor of Education, at North Georgia College and State University.

In the article, Dr. Howrey talks about the efforts of the Georgia legislature to tie teacher salaries to their student's standardized test scores; i.e. paying teachers based on how well their students do on the standardized state test (the "CRCT" here in Georgia). Some states call this merit pay. Dr. Howrey states that Georgia is trying to "ensure a well-educated, successful work force resulting in a strong economy." But, Dr. Howrey goes on to explain, these bills would essentially do the opposite.

We here in the Gifted Galaxy agree wholeheartedly! Standardized tests measure knowledge and base skills only; memorizing knowledge and performing discrete skills is only a small part of what children need to be successful.

Robert Sternberg, a Yale psychologist and advocate for gifted education who has studied successful people for many years, found that they possess a "triarchic" set of personal qualities. The first of these is "analytical" intelligence, which can be, to some degree, measured on standardized tests.

Equally important, says Sternberg, are two other types of intelligence: "creative intelligence," or the ability to manipulate ideas and think about things in new ways, and "tacit intelligence," or the social/emotional skills needed for dealing well with people. (If you're interested in Sternberg's book, here's a link: The Triarchic Mind: A New Theory of Human Intelligence

Dr. Howrey claims that these skills (all 3 of them) are not only necessary for success, but may be critical for survival in a globally and technically interconnected world. Thomas Friedman, author of “The World is Flat: a Brief History of the Twenty-First Century,” has stated that our country’s ability to compete in a global economy will depend on people with analytical skills to synthesize large amount of information, creativity to apply that information to new ideas and products, and communication skills to lead teams of individuals from a variety of countries and cultures.

According to research by Sternberg, Torrence, Eisner, Renzulli, Reis, and others, children develop these creative and social skills through exposure to the arts, music, and drama; opportunities to apply mathematical and scientific knowledge in experiments and projects; and rich, open-ended discussions of literature and social studies. Dr. Howrey says that these types of opportunities are the exact programs that the Georgia Legislature wants to do away with by cutting funding for them in the near future. She goes on to say that none of these skills can be measured through CRCT scores, "as they require thinking outside the box, not marking inside a box of predetermined right or wrong answers."

State testing can be used to test factual knowledge learned and discrete skill sets but Dr. Howrey believes that the Georgia legislation that rewards teachers and schools for increasing test scores are "dangerously short-sighted" and provide only a small portion of the knowledge and skills that Georgia’s children will need to succeed in the 21st century. And as has been painfully pointed out in Georgia in the last few weeks, tests--even the CRCT--can be manipulated.  Start tying teacher's pay to test performance and the incentive to manipulate testing is that much higher.

It seems very convenient in this time of economic distress when states and school districts are trying to cut every ounce of extras out of their budget that they would push for rewarding only those teachers and schools that increase test scores. The rewards sound like the cheaper alternative and--at first glance--seem logical and a good "business decision".  But learning isn't so cut and dried, and teachers aren't commissioned salespeople.

Besides, we all hear how far American students lag behind other country's students in test scores, yet American workers are--by far--the most productive in the world.  Why are we trying to emulate the education system of less productive societies?

Parents everywhere (not just here in Georgia) need to question their local districts when they start to cut funding for band, orchestra, music, art, etc. and everyone needs to pay attention to the debate over "teacher merit pay".

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