This space explores issues in public education policy, and it advocates for a commitment to and a re-examination of the democratic purposes of schools. If there is some urgency in the message, it is due to the current reform efforts that are based on a radical re-invention of education, now spearheaded by a psychometric blitzkrieg of "metastasizing testing" aimed at dismantling a public education system that took almost 200 years to build. JH August, 2005
Friday, September 20, 2013
The Unmeasurable, Untestable You
I think you will agree that the following absolutely negates the "value" of the findings of any "standardized" testing in schools (and anywhere else for that matter)...or rather, it encourages us to understand the value of testing as producing outcomes that benefit those implementing the testing. That is to say, testing does not serve to illuminate intrinsic "failures" or "successes" in thinking or a "failure" in instructional practice. Of course, it is true enough to say that these may be factors that can effect a person's intelligence or development or social status, etc., and so on, and so on and so on...that is to say, there are no "singular" and testable factors that go into the development of a human mind.
We can I think assert that what we force on people as necessity, as necessary to contemplate, can be seen as stressors that effect our capabilities to think well, efficiently, expansively, deeply, inclusively. That is, by making a testing environment we are making a testing response. That seems, and I'm sorry if this term is too loaded or distracting, something we might call "maladaptive."
So, let's not go down the rabbit hole of faux-objectivity as regards our justifications for why we force these institutional requirements on our children. Let's understand that stressors reduce capacities. Let us understand that poverty, scarcity, authoritarian domination, social hierarchies, and on and on, are stressors and that all of these are present and reinforced in the institution we allow to "raise" our children.
The downside is that by occupying the mind, scarcity can prevent people from attending to other matters. If the mind is full, it will have a hard time absorbing new material. When sixth-graders take classes near a noisy railroad line, they learn a lot less, ending up a full year behind their counterparts. Social scientists have done a lot of experiments involving “cognitive load.” In such experiments, they ask people to solve complex problems and then test whether the effort affects their behavior in other respects, for example by leading them to choose chocolate cake over fruit. The standard finding is that their self-control is diminished; they are more likely to go for the cake. Mullainathan and Shafir think that scarcity works in the same way. It imposes a kind of “bandwidth tax” that impairs people’s ability to perform well.
[I think it's absolutely amazing that children in our schools show any intelligence at all given the daily onslaught of tensions with which they must contend.]
In one experiment, they asked a group of people to imagine that their car needed to be fixed, that the repair would cost $300, and that they were making a choice between getting it fixed immediately or waiting (and hoping that the car might work for a while longer). Then the authors asked: How would you make this decision? Would it be an easy or hard decision to make? After receiving people’s answers, the authors asked them a series of questions of the sort that appear on conventional intelligence tests. Well-off people and poor people did not show any difference in intelligence.
In a second version of the experiment, the authors posed exactly the same problem, but with a single difference: the cost of the repair was $3,000 rather than $300. Here is the remarkable finding: After encountering the second version of the problem, poor people did significantly worse than well-off people on the same intelligence test. What explains the difference? The answer is not more challenging arithmetic. When the authors posed nonfinancial problems, the use of small or large numbers produced no difference between poor people and rich people. Nor did the problem involve a lack of motivation. When the authors paid people for correct answers (and thus gave poor people an especially strong incentive to do well), the $3,000 version continued to create a large difference between poor people and well-off people on general intelligence questions.
[This result seems to also strongly call into question the very idea of "incentives"--or rather, the idea that there is a particular incentive that will mitigate a stress that is "turned on" by the language in the testing event. That is, paying a poor person doesn't alleviate their poverty and cannot "erase" the stress that is linked to the money-element and that is unloosed upon the mind by the mere mention of a cost too high to absorb. That is, the brain on stress is not rational or contemplative or very intelligent.]
Mullainathan and Shafir attribute the result to the fact that for people without a lot of money, it is extremely challenging to try to figure out a way to come up with $3,000. To meet that challenge, they have to think extremely hard, which is depleting, and which makes it harder to do well on subsequent tasks. After people are depleted in that way, they do worse on intelligence tests. (Recall the sixth-graders who learned less because of background noise, and the food-obsessed participants in the University of Minnesota study; it is a fair bet that they would not have done so well on intelligence tests.) Mullainathan and Shafir replicated their general result with sugar cane farmers in India, finding that they do far worse on intelligence tests before a harvest, when they have little money and are preoccupied with how to make ends meet, than after a harvest, when cash is plentiful. Stunningly, the effect of plentiful cash was equivalent to a nine-to-ten-point boost in IQ.
[The RELIEF of being in "kind" circumstances shows the difference between "paying" for performance and being free from the stress of "subsistence insecurity."]
A depletion of bandwidth also reduces people’s capacity for self-control. After being asked to try to remember eight-digit numbers, people are more likely to be rude in difficult social situations. The general lesson is that when people’s attention is absorbed by other matters, they are more likely to yield to their impulses. With this lesson in mind, Mullainathan and Shafir insist that certain characteristics that we attribute to individual personality (lack of motivation, inability to focus) may actually be a problem of limited bandwidth.
In a recent conversation with my children about a former classmate who was always angry and aggressive, especially during "play"--kickball, etc.--I offered that I understood, having witnessed if often in the park, but that it seemed to me that his responses were often "relational." That is, his buttons seemed to get pushed by particular kids and then he just became that proverbial snowball rolling down the mountain--get out of his way or get rolled. It turns out that one of his responses to other kids who called him out when he did something "bad" was to say "Shut up, I'm nice." This seems a perfect response--that is, "I'm not nice, and I'm nice," it depends on when and with whom and in what circumstance.
That seems to me often broadly true of most of us.
Studies on offer in books like "Scarcity" are not new. It is far from the case that the folks devising and implementing testing are unaware of these particular evidences. I'd offer that they are indeed very aware of them and understand that the tests they devise will of course reflect emotional and environmental factors of stress. That's what is expected, and what is wanted, of these test outcomes.
There is already a narrative in place to explain failures--so the outcomes simply serve as ballast to those false and "interested" (self-serving) testing procedures.
Power in the form of politics and commerce (profit) always knows the answers to the questions it asks. That's the first rule of litigation after all. And don't we claim to be a nation of laws? Well, property law...