Intellectually Lazy Intellectuals 12/7/19

Opinion on education by Richard Bleil

Today, an interesting article crossed my path stating that Chinese students beat American students in all three areas of education. I’m not quite sure what the three areas are; I’m assuming they are the three “R’s”, Reading, Riting and Rithmetic. Although if you spell writing as “Riting” I’m guessing that you are failing, and if you honestly believe “arithmetic” is spelled “rithmetic”, your reading is probably not much better.

None the less, this got me to thinking about an autobiography by physicist Richard Feynman. In it, he described an interaction he had had while traveling in an elevator with two or three Asian students. He said he took the opportunity to “quiz” them to get a sense of their knowledge, and had come to the conclusion that if you were to ask questions as they would be stated on a standardized exam, Asian students could beat American students hands down. However, if you ask them to synthesize the knowledge and apply it to a situation that doesn’t fit so well into such an exam, they do not do as well.

He suggested that this might be because of the educational system in Asia (which is the term I am using because I cannot recall if he was in China, Japan, Hong Kong or other country). He hypothesized that the reason might well be because of the educational system. See, there are so many students in Asian countries that, at least then, there were certain cut-off ages where the students would take national standardized exams. Only the top certain percentage of students were permitted to move on to the next grade. The net result is not only weeding out of the lower performing students, but also resulted in teaching to and studying for these standardized exams rather than focusing on the principles as we were doing (note the past tense) in America.

In the millennial presidential election, the American educational system was a key topic of debate. Candidates Al Gore and George W. Bush both were pushing for testing of schools in an effort to normalize the quality of education across the nation. Both were advocating standardized testing, but Al Gore proposed looking into the poorer performing school to get them the resources they need to improve. George W. Bush was proposing taking funding away from the lower performing schools, the ones that probably need the resources the most.

In a hotly debated election, it eventually went to George W. Bush (arguably handed to him by the Florida Supreme Court) eventually won and carried out his pledge passing the “No Child Left Behind” act in 2002. Standardized testing became the trend du jour. Twenty years later, the American educational system is slipping in its world standing, and with the advent of computer technology, standardized testing has become, well, the standard.

The problem with standardized testing is that it is intellectually lazy. One might argue that the work is “front loaded”, meaning that a lot of effort goes into wording questions in such a manner that exams can be quickly graded and tabulated by a computer. The earliest versions of these used “Scan sheets”. You know the ones; you must use a number 2 pencil (which, by the way, is related to the level of hardness of the graphite in the pencil) and fill in the ovals completely. These days, any computer device, including cell phones, can be used for the testing, but they are largely the same. True or false, multiple guess, and maybe one word or numerical answers, but the computer typically grades them as right or wrong with no “gray” area.

Gray areas can occur. Just today I had a student ask me about a question regarding a polyatomic ion. Given the formula, the question asked the name. There were two correct answers; “bicarbonate” or “hydrogen carbonate”. She put “hydrogen bicarbonate”. Okay, technically, yes, it’s wrong, but she clearly had the right idea. Should she have really lost all credit on that problem as the computer decided that she must?

What’s more, these exams give no room for synthesis. I like giving calculation problems on my exams, and when they were on paper (my current institution actually insists on using the computer test software) I could look at the student’s work which I always required rather than just an answer. I see if the student had the right idea and was on the right track, so if the answer was wrong, I could judge if the student made a simple calculation error (typing it into the calculator incorrectly), or if they had it largely correct until the last step, or were just plain lost. I could give points accordingly; if a student knew what they were doing, I would give them most of the credit, and even a little credit for fair effort even if they were in the wrong ballpark, playing the wrong sport for the wrong team in the wrong nation.

It’s easy to have computers grade tests. This is why the nation is moving towards standardized testing. Not because it’s better, but because it’s faster, cheaper and easier. Now, having said that, I will also say that for large scale (a.k.a. statewide or nationwide) testing, it also takes out personal bias in human grading. But it’s sad that we are so quick to embrace computerized testing and standardized test formatting. We are starting behind the Asian nations that have been doing it for decades before we started, and without the harshness of their system, there really is no chance to ever really do better. Frankly, I would personally push for a return to teaching basic principles and synthesis rather than rote memorization to fill in the right oval. Ultimately, it was the synthesis of our educational focus that gave America its technological edge.

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