27 January 2014

Personalization Relies on Standardization - A Medical Metaphor

In my last post, I wrote about Yong Zhao's observation that the U.S. leads the world in cultivating 21st century skills like Confidence, Risk-Taking, Creativity and Entrepreneurship. Zhao is concerned that the current U.S. "obsession" with standards and assessment will result in reduced appreciation of creative endeavor. Indeed, Zhao's concerns are confirmed by contemporary de-emphasis of arts and humanities education in U.S. public schools.

I share Zhao's concern that today's schools suffer from excess focus on achievement as measured by test scores. I also agree with him that some of this is encouraged by federal programs like No Child Left Behind. However, I disagree with Zhao in that I believe that achievement standards and testing aren't the cause of the problem. Indeed, they're a critical part of the solution.

To explain this apparent contradiction, I’ll borrow a metaphor from Sir Ken Robinson. When I go to my physician, I expect a personalized, custom experience. I expect him to diagnose, treat and prescribe according to my personal needs. In order to do this, however, the doctor will use standard tests. He'll do a standardized exam and ask me standard questions. For example, he’ll measure my temperature in degrees and compare it against 98.6 Fahrenheit. He’ll measure my blood pressure in millimeters of mercury and compare that against standards established by the American Medical Association. Based on those results he may follow-up with custom questions or tests chosen according to my individual needs. But even those follow-on tests will be compared against standards. Finally, he'll prescribe a course of treatment that's customized to my individual needs.

Admittedly, not all doctors handle standards the same way. For example, when my cholesterol tested high, one doctor called in a prescription for Statin drugs without consulting me. This bothered me as I wanted to discuss how serious the problem was and consider alternatives like diet and exercise before simply taking a drug. Indeed, another doctor recommended a Coronary Calcium Scan before going on Statins. The test came out clean and I'm putting additional effort into my exercise.

That’s what standardized testing, properly done, is all about. This school year, the Smarter Balanced Assessment Consortium will test more than three million students in grades 3 to 11. The results from this first year will be used to calibrate the tests and find reasonable benchmarks for student achievement in English and Mathematics. In future years, students’ test results will be used by teachers, students and parents to customize learning activities to the needs of every child.

This isn't a complete solution. We need to actively fight the tendency to teach only what’s going to be tested. Not only is it not good for the child, strangely enough, “teaching to the test” doesn't improve scores as much as a well-rounded education. We also need to resist efforts to standardize curriculum and teaching. Standards belong to measurement of the results of education, not to the inputs.

Doctors can only directly measure a few vital signs and compare them to standards. For more detail they perform or prescribe more extensive tests. Some of these are screenings like the cholesterol test I had with my annual physical. Others are specific to certain problems like the CT scan I had after breaking some ribs. But even the full battery of tests available to a physician can't discover all issues. For the rest, a physician has to rely on interviews, experience, consultation with other doctors and sometimes trial-and-error.

The same is true for education. We can only measure a few of the factors that go into a well-rounded education. The Common Core State Standards only apply to fundamental skills in reading and mathematics. It's a small fraction of all that we hope children will learn. But that doesn't mean we should throw out the standards. Literacy and numeracy are fundamental skills that are prerequisite to every other academic skill we desire students to develop. The mistake is to assume that just because these are the skills that are being measured that they are the only ones that count.

Standards and testing are useful tools – but only when they serve the greater goal of developing confident, creative adults who are capable of a lifetime of self-directed learning.

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