So, what is the value of standardized tests?
You know the ones. They are what every school district has to give students in order for state and federal educational agencies to determine how effectively your tax dollars are working.
It turns out if you just eliminate the middle man, test scores will soar.
The National Bureau of Economic Research has been conducting experiments as part of a working paper on educational outcomes. In 2016 a group of Massachusetts high school sophomores getting ready to take a math test were told they would receive a cash reward for every answer they got right.
Guess what happened?
The students got more answers correct and left fewer questions blank than the control group of other students who weren’t offered cash rewards for each correct answer.
The economists who hail from the United States, as well as China, believe continued research will prove the point that cash incentives can lift American test scores.
The bottom line, should they prove that point, is that standardized tests are a lousy way to judge how successful we are at educating young people, especially when it comes to global performance rankings. That’s because a failure to put effort into a test doesn’t reflect lack of aptitude. It also means the results of global tests, such as the Program for International Student Assessment, are extremely flawed.
Based on the 2016 research, the economists concluded offering a cash incentive would have lifted the United States from its 36th ranking for international math rankings to a 19th ranking.
The economists haven’t yet isolated why Chinese students apparently try much harder than their American counterparts. If I had to take a wild guess it’s probably has a lot to do with their families’ attitude toward education that is more reflective of what ours was back during the Great Recession. A good education was equated to upward mobility 90 years ago in this country, much as it is today in China. We still say we believe it today, but it’s harder to get whipped up into a frenzy about it because quite frankly most families in the United States aren’t a step away from the streets and starvation. It explains why children of immigrants tend to be overachievers whether it is in school or business. In order to have a hunger to learn you have to be hungry for a better life.
That’s not to say students as a whole are dogging it or that they are less smart than their counterparts in other countries. It’s just that there is less at stake. In China how you do on a standardized test can mean the difference between working in the fields, a blue-collar job or a white-collar profession. The results of such tests can open and close doors. In the United States we use standardized test results not to judge individual students as much as to judge how successful people are at teaching students.
The United States is the land of second, third, and even four or more chances. You can bomb in K-12 education and still get your act together, access community college, and work your way to a degree and successful career.
You can also be a drop out and succeed 10,000-fold more than someone who stays on the education track. The Silicon Valley is populated with such achievers. While that isn’t universally true, it is something that can’t be done in nations that typically score higher in international testing such as China.
Those that argue that is all the more reason to make education in the United States more regimented miss the point. It’s our educational system that values creative thinking that has developed proportionately more technological and medical advances and/or refinements than other countries. The reason we might be losing our edge, if indeed we are, has more to do with the fact that as a nation as a whole we are significantly more mature in terms of comfort whether its leisure time, food, shelter, or other non-survival pursuits.
So why don’t we get off the standardized test hamster wheel?
For starters it serves to hammer whoever needs to be hammered to throw more money at education without giving serious thought of how it is spent. Admittedly the argument is wearing thin since hearing the same thing since 1965 of how we’re not spending enough money on education and how the education level is supposedly dropping. Forget research that shows human knowledge is now doubling every 13 months as opposed to every 25 years at the end of World War II.
It also gives us some level of comfort — even though it works only to heighten our anxieties — that teachers are doing their job.
It’s funny how public education seemed to have gotten along fine for decades without such an obsession with standardized tests by politicians and others. One wonders how we managed to give birth to a nation, help trigger the industrial revolution, roll out modern production, tame and develop the wild frontier, win World War II and put a man on the moon without an obsession with standardized tests.
Maybe there is a lot more to teaching and learning than what centers around one’s ability to take a test.
That said if we really want results instead of increasing the $10,000 or so a year we spend on educating a student in California in the next budget we should give each student 25 cents for each question they get right on a standardized test. It’ll save money and get better results.