Tuesday, December 20, 2011

non-measurable qualities of success...

Our local school officials are pleased that standardized test scores are on the rise. According to an article in our local Carroll County Newspaper, "Carroll County schools were among several listed for improved test scores on the Benchmark and End-of-Course (EOC) exams given this year." Unfortunately, there is no direct correlation between what the tests measure and the qualities of hand, mind and heart required for student long term success. Others on the horizon are looking at what they've termed "non-cognitive," behavioral or emotional predictors of success. According to Paul R. Sackett, professor of psychology at the University of Minnesota, the greatest predictors of student success are "conscientiousness (e.g. work ethic, dependability and perseverance) agreeableness (teamwork, emotional stability) and various kinds of extroversion and openness to new experience." Those are qualities that don't show up on standardized tests.

I have become suspicious of the use of terms like "non-cognitive". The implication is that there are elements of human behavior that do not require thought. For instance, the waiter serving you tonight's dinner might be assumed mindless by those who've fallen on the less comprehending side of the academic divide. And yet he deserves only to be considered mindless if he has forgotten nearly everything in delivering what you've ordered.

There are two areas of cognition, involving the left and right hemispheres of the human brain. Standardized testing measures only that which comes from one side, and we have to wonder when American education will remember the whole child which cannot be fully educated without music, the arts, crafts, dance, creative interpersonal problem solving, play, athletics and hands-on learning.

It will be interesting to discover down the road many years from now whether the teach-to-the-test experiment will pay off in leading children to become adults who have some drive toward their own success. But I strongly suspect, based on what we know of the left-right brain divide through study of other species, that we will have neglected the most important of that which we as responsible teachers and adults have been entrusted to impart.

Make, fix and create...


  1. Great post. I enjoy your writing very much. I would like to share that what we know about how the brain works now flies in the face of 'non-cognitive' for sure. As a matter of fact, it seems the brain is fed primarily by what was referenced as non-cognitive!! Your description of mindless was perfect.

    What we have also learned is that the mind is not limited to right/left hemisphere - it is much more integrated than that, which makes teaching the whole child even more vital.

  2. Cwags,
    When I was a kid I took my sister's sewing machine apart, and couldn't get it to go back together so it would work ever again. I learned from that early experience that holistic thinking is essential. It is always an error to get stuck on the operation of specific parts if it distracts you from a holistic view of how the parts function in relationship to each other. So to think that anything is non-cognitive is just plain dumb.

    Also the division of left and right is useful for finding your direction on the street, but is a poor framework for examining the hands, and an unsuccessful model for the brain, unless we maintain a concurrent view of how the hemispheres perform in relation to each other.

    For example, in writing the right hand may hold the pen and the left secure the position of the paper, but try to do it comfortably without one or the other. The brain is the same. And unfortunately we have decided to deliberately educate one side and not the other.

    I am always pleased to find those associated with academia who agree with me. As a woodworker in Arkansas, I could start to feel alone and in left field without those willing to read and respond.


  3. There are some logical fallacies equated with standardized testing. One being that even if all students score above 90% on a given standardized test you can still distribute them on a bell curve, so that you have a bottom 10% and a top 10% ! State legislatures have abused the use of standardized testing. There is a movement towards competency testing or criterion-referenced testing (CRT) that is much more appropriate in an educational setting. The problem that states encounter with CRT, is that when X number of students test competent, there is pressure to raise the 'high jump bar'. They think by doing this they are challenging students to greater achievement which presents a cyclical event equivalent to standardized testing! To me it is the Bart Simpson theory of Special Education: "let's see I can't learn on a third grade level, so you send me to a class to learn on a first grade level?"

    There are several challenging problems in public education. Of course the BIG one, test score directed curriculum, is the main one. It would be nice to have the freedom to experiment, but you have to be a Charter School or a Private School to have that privilege. How much sense does that make? The second major problem that I see is population and comparing ourselves internationally. China has over a Billion people as does India. You would expect that the top 10 % of their populations would be just as intelligent as our top 10%. To put it into proper perspective China and India have potentially 200 million people in their top 10% while the US has 33 million. So why do we get so excited that they have more engineers than we do? Of course they are going to have more intellectuals! The question is: how do we as a country and as a people deal with phenomenon?

    Once again, as a people we share a common language that is full of semantic traps. What is success? What role does education play in success? What then is education? Does it have to be in a classroom 8 hours a day? Is there a way to measure competence in literature or math for ALL students? I have many questions, that seem so fundamental, I am afraid to ask them sometimes because of the political fallout from questioning the intelligence of those who govern.

    I asked a group of Superintendents once did they really want every child to learn to read. They were apoplectic! Of course we do, they replied, how could you even ask that question? Well, I replied, if you really wanted every child to learn to read it seems like that is where you would put your resources. Oh there are other things you have not considered, they replied. When they were finished with their excuses, it boiled down to not having the political courage to tell legislators that reallocating funding to reading programs could solve our reading problems.

    'Nuff for now...I have to get the grill going...

  4. "I have many questions, that seem so fundamental, I am afraid to ask them sometimes because of the political fallout from questioning the intelligence of those who govern."

    Watching the politicians in Washington this week should have convinced us all that they are clearly lacking in intelligence.

    It sounds like we should be giving all educators and politicians the grilling they have earned.