Confusing Harder with Better

>Much like the idea in the pro-choice/pro-life debate where if one is pro-choice then one must be an advocate for abortion, in education either people are in favor of higher standards (that is, what the government views as higher standards), or are content with lower standards (Kohn, 2004, p. 41). In practice, this means raising scores on the standardized tests (created by corporations).

Many tests fall into two categories: norm-referenced and criterion-referenced. Here’s the difference:

  • norm-referenced test: a test where the student’s score is compared to a pre-determined population. The student is compared to his peers.
  • criterion-referenced test: a test where the student is assigned a category–advanced, proficient, nearing proficiency, a grade A-F–based on a predetermined scale.
Kohn suggests that many of the tests fall into the norm-referenced category. Here’s one I didn’t know about until I had to look up the difference between criterion referenced and norm-referenced: ipsative assessment
  • ipsative assessment: a student’s score is compared to itself over time
This is what teachers do in class when providing students with their short-cycle assessment scores and asking them to plot how they score over the course of a year. From what I understand of ipsative assessment, this is what teachers want when they complain about comparing two different groups when determining AYP. We want the same group of students to be compared to themselves throughout time.
How we evaluate the data generated by tests aside, Kohn suggests that higher scores on standardized tests to indicate standards have been lowered (2004, p. 41). Because students have the ability to pass the test, they must have been taught just how to pass the test, and nothing more. This is a broad generalization. Not all teachers load their students up with facts, treating them like empty vessels into which information is poured. And not all teachers subscribe to the “traditional” method of teaching (lecture style?).
Here’s the kicker, though: “Low scores have become synonymous with good tests” (Kohn, 2004, p. 44). Are we evaluating students, or how well the assessment shows students’ failure? Because making the test harder after students in several states failed to pass the same assessment makes a whole lot of sense, but teacher are taught that if most of their students fail the assessment they need to look at two things–both the assessment and the instruction. 

Kohn, A. (2004). Confusing Harder with Better. In What does it mean to be well educated?: And more essays on standards, grading and other follies (pp. 38-45). Boston, MA: Beacon Press.

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