"A child's learning is the function more of the characteristics of his classmates than those of the teacher." James Coleman, 1972

Monday, February 11, 2013

In Praise of Standardized Testing - and New Types of Test Prep

How could Bill Gates have missed it? How could he spend $45 million dollars on the Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) experiment and not correlate his metrics with the genetics that informed Po Bronson’s and Ashley Merryman’s New York Times Magazine article “Why Some Kids Handle Pressure while Others Fall Apart?”
Bronson and Merryman describe the COMT enzyme which helps regulate neural activity.  They say that there are two variants of the gene. One variant produces enzymes that slowly reduce dopamine levels and the other builds enzymes that rapidly clear dopamine.  People with the rapid variant supposedly like standardized tests.   
Bronson and Merryman say, “About a quarter of people carry Warrior-only genes, and a quarter of people Worrier-only.”  The Worriers are “particularly ill-suited” for high-stakes standardized tests.  Worriers still maintain that there is more to schooling than competition.
Bronson and Merryman explain, “taking a standardized test is a competition in which the only thing anyone cares about is the final score. No one says, ‘I didn’t do that well, but it was still worth doing, because I learned so much math from all the months of studying.’”
The article focuses on students who fear standardized tests, but the implications for teachers are just as clear. Why go through all the trouble of videotaping instruction and surveying students when the problem is Worrier-teachers?  After all, Worriers are like swimmers that Bronson and Merryman cite who finish last in a race, but still enjoy other aspects of being in the water. Their low expectations created an educational “status quo” where children’s need for competition led to spelling bees, science fairs, and chess teams, not training the Warriors we need for the 21st century.
So, shouldn’t Gates fund incentives to get rid of the Worriers and get more Warriors in the classroom? Rather than salvage the crackpot idea that value-added evaluations could attract more of Gates’ type of people to the classroom, he should fund a genetic testing program to screen out educators who don’t fit his vision of schooling. Prospective teachers who are found to be in the quartile with the slowest acting enzymes would be told to find a different line of work.
Similarly, TFA has shown that many of the best and the brightest seek to prove themselves with a two-year stint in the inner city. Teaching is a safer way to express ones’ warrior-ness than joining the Navy SEALS.  Premiums should be paid for candidates with the right stuff  COMT. The faster a teacher’s enzyme works, the higher his or her bonus. 
Gates, however, should not abandon his entire MET structure.  Bronson and Merryman show that the Worriers can be fixed.  They claim, “Training, preparation and repetition defuse the Worrier’s curse.” In fact, with proper drills, we can produce a “Worrier-gene Warrior.”
It has long been claimed that “the Battle of Waterloo was won on the playing fields of Eton.” To Gates’ credit, he isn’t like the 19th century elites who welcomed splendid little wars to put steel in the spines of the aristocracy. He just believes that standardized testing has been helpful in creating today’s oligarchy “Billionaire Boys Club,” and that all children should have access to bubble-in rigor.  All children should have the opportunity to be like the 5th grader who Bronson and Merryman describe, and have a month of headaches and stomachaches before testing, and anxiety afterwards.
Of course, in a democracy the normative approach would be for the children and their parents to decide what, if any, competition students should enter.  In the past, it was the local public schools that decided whether sports, speech competitions, and academic contests provided adequate preparation “stress inoculation” for life in a market economy.   But, Bronson and Merryman claim that kids needmore competition. It just needs to be the right kind.”
We all know who appointed themselves as the persons who determine the “right kind” of schooling that should be imposed throughout the nation. So, now, it is the billionaires who decided that high-stake standardized testing (to borrow a phrase from Bronson and Merryman) must be the key “weapon in their intellectual arsenal” who should step up and ensure that their type of educators lead the competitive, stressful process of schooling test-taking.

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