By Dave Reber October 12, 2010 6:33 pm
That title is a direct quote from a student last week; his implication being that my biology test was too difficult. It sounds to me like my test worked perfectly. Webster’s Dictionary defines “test” as “a set of questions or problems for determining one’s knowledge and abilities.”
In order for a test to determine one’s knowledge and abilities, it must ask for more than the person is capable of. A test must push beyond a person’s limit in order to show where that limit is.
In 2009 Andy Bolton set a new world record deadlift: 1008.6 pounds. The way Andy discovered how much he could lift was to increase the weight until he could no longer lift it.
Today’s 10th grade students have spent their entire schooling under the shadow of No Child Left Behind. Predictably, these students often subscribe to the notion that if good teaching is happening, then all students will score highly on exams. A bell-curve grade distribution is, to them, evidence of failed teaching.
Often, today’s teens describe good teaching as a three step process: 1) teacher tells students exactly what is on the exam; 2) students memorize everything; and 3) students regurgitate the “right” answers and everyone gets an “A”.
Many students have learned to equate learning with test preparation. To them, learning means memorizing information and parroting it back on the test. Last week’s biology exam covered cellular transport processes – diffusion, osmosis, and so forth. I know all of my students could say “osmosis is the diffusion of water across a selectively permeable membrane.” Then again, so could a parrot. And the D-minus student and the parrot would likely have equal comprehension of what they were saying.
I write exams such that about 60% of the questions fall in the “knowledge” level of cognitive function (Mr. Gates, look up “Bloom’s Taxonomy”). The remaining 40% of questions require some higher-order thinking skills, and by design appear quite mysterious to the student who simply “memorized everything.” I analyzed this particular exam and found it contained exactly 60% knowledge-level questions. 22% of the questions were “comprehension” level, 10% “application”, and the remaining 8% were “analysis” level or above.
Memorize definitions, and you can answer 60% of these questions and earn a solid D-minus. Understand the concepts, and you might score in the “C” or “B” range. Want an “A”? Then you must be able to apply your knowledge, analyze new information, and draw solid conclusions.
“But Mr. Reber, don’t you want us all to get “A’s” so you’ll look like a good teacher?” Another direct quote, with another direct answer: NO! First, I’m far more concerned with being a good teacher than with looking like a good teacher. A class roster full of “A’s” might create an illusion of quality good enough to for Oprah, but it’s not good enough for me (and Bill “if you can’t make it good, at least make it look good” Gates doesn’t have to like it, either).
More importantly, if everyone gets “A’s” then either the grades are fabricated or the class is nowhere near challenging enough for the students – the latter perhaps being a conscience-easing route to the former. Either way, it’s not good teaching by my standards.
I could open a gym and churn out countless deadlift champions. It’s easy – I’ll just equip the gym only with barbells 30 pounds and lighter, and then label everyone a champion. “We’re all champions” is a good sales pitch, but such “champions” will carry little weight outside the gym walls.
T.S. Elliot said “only those who go too far can possibly find out how far they can go.” I want all my students to find out how far they can go, and to do that I have to push them past their limits. On that last exam, 34% of students made “C” grades, 38% scored higher, while only 28% scored lower. Looks like I need to make the next exam a bit tougher.
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