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  • Steven Delpome

We've been seeing it wrong all along


Researchers like Alfie Kohn have been telling us for years that test scores tell us little about learning. Mr. Kohn, who I admire, may be wrong. Using logic, we can see that test scores tell us a bunch. Parents and educators have used test scores to boast about the quality of their schools for decades, but, the truth is, high test scores may tell us that students are getting a poor quality education after all.

We start with three ideas that we are going to tie together.

The first is the research of Dan Pink. Pink, in his TED talk and in his book, cites research that tells us that rewards and punishments reduce people's ability to perform cognitively complex tasks. (for an entertaining animated version of the talk, click here. Pink cites research that proves that on tasks that require only rote mechanical skill and memorization, rewards and punishments (carrots and stick motivation) work wonderfully. But that with tasks that require even slight, rudimentary, cognitive skill, carrots and sticks actually backfire and make people peform worse.

The second comes from statistics on who performs best in school. Statistically our highest performing students in America are our East Asian students and our Rich White students. What do these sub-groups have in common ion terms of “academic performance” (as we currently measure it via test scores and grades)? Good performance in school is important and this is enforced in the home.

The study shows that major factors are “Educational Expectations” at home and among peers and that the parents have significant “control over out of school time.”

The third: "Educational Expectations," as school defines them, are high test scores and grades. Test scores and grades tell us little about a student's talents, but they are effective as punishments and rewards (see: honor roll and all of the rewards that go along with it, for example).

So what does this all mean?

If students who are doing well in school, are doing well in a carrot/stick, reward/punishment environment, and, we accept the science that says that carrot/stick environments only help us succeed at rote tasks and memorization, we must conclude that schools with high test scores (carrots) are getting those scores by educating kids into being good at rote mechanical and memorization tasks, rather than kids with the ability to perform cognitively complex tasks.

So maybe those test scores do tell us something about schools after all. Just not what we thought they were.