Sunday, March 24, 2013

Education: Testing and Conditional Intelligence

Our education systems place a place a great amount of trust in standardized tests of our children. Beginning in preschool, little three and four-year-olds are quizzed and graded. Based on those tests, educators make grand conclusions about the intelligence and life prospects of the child. In Education: The Danger in Testing Five-Year-Olds we discussed some extremes to which this trend could be taken. We quoted from an article by Stephanie Simon:
"A national push to make public schools more rigorous and hold teachers more accountable has led to a vast expansion of testing in kindergarten. And more exams are on the way, including a test meant to determine whether 5-year-olds are on track to succeed in college and career."

The idea that such a determination could be made for a young child on the basis of a test is rather disturbing considering that the SAT and ACT tests that graduating high school seniors take are not all that good at predicting college success. Could it be that we have mistakenly placed too much faith in the products of educational marketers? Could it also be that children are malleable, complex entities whose attributes cannot be assessed by merely inserting a dipstick?

Paul Tough, in his excellent book How Children Succeed, suggests that assessing a child’s capabilities is not a simple task.

The basis for most testing of children is the belief that cognitive capabilities have already been established and they are measurable. To address that issue, Tough reports on what is referred to as the M&M candy study. Back in the 1960s a researcher named Calvin Edlund collected a group children aged five to seven from mostly lower economic classes.

"The children were randomly divided into an experimental group and a control group. First, they all took a standard version of the Stanford-Binet IQ test. Seven weeks later, they took a similar test, but this time the kids in the experimental group were given one M&M for each correct answer. On the first test, the two groups were evenly matched on IQ. On the second test, the IQ of the M&M group went up an average of twelve points—a huge leap."

Should we be surprised that the test performance of children depends on some mixture of capability and motivation? Must we conclude that the intelligence test has an uncertainty of at least 12 points? Can we not tell the difference between above average and below average intelligence?

Tough also alerts us to another test-confounding phenomenon: stereotype threat.

"If you give a person a subtle psychological cue having to do with his group identity before a test of physical or intellectual can have a major effect on how well he performs."

If you tell a black student that a test is designed to measure intellectual capability and cause him to be reminded that some believe blacks are less intelligent than whites, he will tend to do less well on the test than the black student who was not so prompted. If a girl is reminded that girls are not expected to be as good at math as boys, then she will tend to do less well than if she had not been prompted it that manner.

The notion that prejudice can become prophecy is truly disturbing.

An article by Annie Murphy Paul in the New York Times elaborates on the notion that intelligence and social context are intertwined.

"Mr. Aronson, an associate professor at New York University, has been a leader in investigating the effects of social forces on academic achievement. Along with the psychologist Claude Steele, he identified the phenomenon known as "stereotype threat." Members of groups believed to be academically inferior — African-American and Latino students enrolled in college, or female students in math and science courses — score much lower on tests when reminded beforehand of their race or gender."

"It’s just one example of the powerful influence that social factors can have on intelligence. As parents, teachers and students settle into the school year, this work should prompt us to think about intelligence not as a ‘lump of something that’s in our heads,’ as the psychologist Joshua Aronson puts it, but as ‘a transaction among people’."

"The evolving literature on stereotype threat shows that performance is always social in nature. Even alone in an exam room, we hear a chorus of voices appraising, evaluating, passing judgment. And as social creatures, humans are strongly affected by what these voices say."

Fear of confirming a stereotype is not the only social issue that can affect test performance.

"In a 2002 study led by Roy F. Baumeister, a psychologist now at Florida State University, participants were given an I.Q. test and then a personality inventory. Some of the participants were randomly selected to receive false feedback from the personality inventory, informing them that they were ‘the sort of people who would end up alone in life’."

"The participants then took another test. Those who had been told they would be loveless and friendless in the future answered significantly fewer questions correctly than on the earlier test."

If concern about social exclusion can render one less "intelligent," what about the physical fear that children living in high crime areas or in dysfunctional families experience?

"If the threat of social exclusion can decrease the expression of intelligence, so can a perceived threat to physical safety. It’s common to blame disadvantaged children’s poor academic performance on their ‘environment.’ By this we usually mean longstanding characteristics of their homes and neighborhoods. But research on the social aspects of intelligence suggests that much more immediate aspects of kids’ surroundings can also affect their I.Q.’s."

"In a study conducted on the troubled South Side of Chicago, for example, students whose neighborhoods had been the site of a homicide within the previous two weeks scored half a standard deviation lower on a test of intelligence."

Paul concludes with some advice for how we should treat our children in our schools.

"This research has important implications for the way we educate our children. For one thing, we should replace high-stakes, one-shot tests with the kind of unobtrusive and ongoing assessments that give teachers and parents a more accurate sense of children’s true abilities. We should also put in place techniques for reducing anxiety and building self-confidence that take advantage of our social natures. And we should ensure that the social climate at our children’s schools is one of warmth and trust, not competition and exclusion."

This advice from Paul may seem a bit extreme given that what she suggests is counter to all current practices that have taken root in our education system. However, we do have an example of a school system that follows exactly the path Paul recommends. It is an important example because it is a school system that the United States recognizes as providing more successful educational outcomes.

Whenever comparison tests of math and science proficiency between students from a variety of countries are taken, Finland’s students perform among the best, while the United States’ students end up in the middle of the pack.

Finland’s children receive education in non-cognitive skills such as curiosity, self-control, self-confidence, and conscientiousness while learning how to socialize with other children. This process goes on until age seven. It is only at that age that they begin to introduce academic subjects such as math and reading. Their children are never given standardized tests before they reach an age equivalent to our high school. And their children are never separated into groups labeled fast learners and slow learners.

There appear to be a number of ways to produce good academic results. Perhaps we should try one.

The current dependence on testing to justify all things is foolish and dangerous. The notion that all learning depends on the quality of the teacher, and the teacher’s competence can be measured by student test results, ignores the role of the student in the process. Teachers can teach, but students must do the learning. As Paul Tough recommends, we should focus more on providing the students with both the cognitive and non-cognitive skills they need to succeed rather playing a blame game with teachers and focusing entirely on cognitive skills.

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