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Raising Literacy Part 11:
Educational Testing

by Bill Lauritzen

Which Student is the Best? vs. What Can a Student Do?

In education there is a controversy about which is the right way to measure the results of education. One is called standardized testing (what I call “which student is the best?”), and the other is generally called learning outcomes (what I call “what can a student do?”).

Both have advantages and disadvantages. Let’s first talk about, “Which student is the best?”

When I went to school back in the 60s, generally everyone was graded on the “curve.” The students scoring the highest on the test got the As and those scoring the lowest got the Fs, etc. This was regardless of how well we knew the materials of the subject. Even if the whole class had generally failed to meet the basic requirements of the class, in theory, using this approach, the best students could still get As, etc.

On a national level we have the infamous SATs. With these colleges are mostly interested in comparing students from differing high schools. They are not so much focused on what the students can or can not do. Students are ranked from the 99.9% down to the 00.1%.

SATs authentic assessment
Stanford 9 portfolio assessment
Standardized tests oral assessment
National tests alternative assessmen
State tests competency testing
percentile rankings objectives
stanine rankings outcomes

Of course there are advantages for a college to be able to compare students. An “A” at one high school may mean something entirely different than an “A” at another high school.

There are also advantages in being able to compare schools in different parts of the city or in different parts of the country or even in different countries. Which schools are the most effective? Which schools need additional funding? These are some of the questions that this type of standardized testing hopes to answer.

It probably does serve a need in this regard.

What disadvantages does it have? Some schools, in order to show their superiority, might begin to teach classes with the end goal of scoring high on these tests. (I guess then they can brag how their students go to Harvard or Stanford, etc.) Of course, this is a skewed goal for education. High school education should help prepare you for life, not just get you into an Ivy league school.

Also, as I mentioned earlier, scoring high compared to your buddies doesn’t mean much if your buddies don’t know squat. In extreme circumstances you can end up graduating from high school and not being able to read or write.

In more recent times some educators have questioned the value of paper-and- pencil-bubble-in-the-correct-answer-with-a-number-2-pencil tests. After all, when someone gets to a job, he is expected to do more than this.

As a result, some educators have begun to use what is called learning outcomes testing. This may also be called authentic assessment, portfolio assessment, reality-based assessment, alternative assessment, oral assessment, and competency testing.

These educators are more concerned with questions like, “When the engineer graduates, can he build a bridge?” Or, “When a doctor graduates, can he stitch up a wound?” Or, At a minimum high school level they might ask, “Can the graduate fill out an income tax return?” “Can the graduate write a business letter?” “Can the graduate fill out an employment application?” At a higher level they might ask, “Can the graduate of a geometry class make a floor plan of the building?”

All sorts of specific learning objectives or outcomes can be publicly stated and the student can show that he can do or can not do the task. Local businesses can be polled to see what skills they need on the job. They can also be polled to see what skills they don’t need.

As a result of polls like this the National Council of Mathematics Education now recommends letting math students use calculators whenever they want. People use them in the workplace. This leaves more time for real-world, application type problems

This type of testing might also be able to detect the more creative student who could interpret the question in a different light.

The disadvantage of this type of testing is that it requires skilled test-givers and time. In other words, money.

To summarize, I believe we need both types of measurement of a student’s knowledge. They complement each other. In comparison testing, we have a quick and cheap way of estimating who is the best/average/worst, etc. In reality testing, we maintain that needed connection to the world of the work place.

Part 11 of a series on raising literacy by William Lauritzen. He holds a master’s degree in Industrial Psychology/Ergonomics and has studied education for over 15 years.