Monday, January 17, 2011

Mothering Tigers, Crouching Standardized Tests

Why does one even bother wading into the mess that is this supposed debate about Chinese mothering philosophy? Oh well, here goes.

In the last few days appeared first a WSJ article by Amy Chua professing that Chinese mothers are superior.

After lots of blowback from commentators, Chua said on NPR that it was tongue-in-cheek. I confess, I was fooled by the first article...I took it straight.

Still later, she 'talked back' in WSJ, to clarify.

So, of course, there's now a raging debate--which will probably flare out by the time I publish this post--about high expectations, nurturing and the balance between the two. (None of this, of course, hurts sales of the book version.)

Framing the debate in such a way, though, seems largely instrumental (what's the best balance for maximization of your child?) and lacking thoughtfulness about the content of those expectations (what, exactly, are we maximizing on?).

After all, by definition, half of children, like half of all adults, are below average. For instance, I will be a far below average chess player or ballet dancer, even if you give me 10,000 plus 10,000 hours of practice. Sure, I'd be much better than before, but I would still be lightyears behind Bobby Fischer or Mikhail Baryshnikov, or even a lesser great in either field. I would be an outstanding hack (well, at chess, maybe--I would just be a clumsy hack at ballet).

It is unreasonable for us to assume that all and everyone can achieve the same transcendent heights in whatever particular activity or discipline one chooses, just by working hard enough.

This may also have important implications for the standardized test we administer in school. We call the magic target (a 400 score on Washington's Measurement of Student Progress) 'meeting standard.'

Well, unless we set the standard ludicrously low (and it does seem to be dropping...more on that some other time), some students will not meet it. To put it another way, a bar so low that everybody passes doesn't really measure anything worth knowing. I had a student last year that got perfect scores on both the reading and math tests. She could have dropped dramatically and still met standard. Would we count her a success if she fell to 405 (from her 550 in math)? The answer is YES, she counts as a 'met standard' on our school's results.

So, the fact of the matter is that the test isn't really about measuring a student's progress for his or her sake (or information or guidance). We collect the individual yes/no results as a way to evaluate a school. It is, of course, an incredibly narrow measure, even on its own terms. For, if we really cared about progress we'd establish a metric of growth that would register success by increases (at least for students on the bottom part of the score spectrum).

We could for instance, call a student successful (passing), if s/he achieves 400 or increases in score by 10 points (which is fairly significant for those below 400).

Or, better yet, we could administer a shorter (usually about 1 hour) version of the math and reading tests, the results of which come overnight and the scores of which tend to parallel and predict MSP outcomes. Doing this (as my district does), we can actually chart growth through the year and across years, and we can show students their results so that we can set goals for the next test.

As it stands now, students take the MSP in May and receive their results the following October. So much later that the students have little prospect of actually understanding anything about their performance.

Let's quit avoiding the important questions, shall we. Of course we should set high expectations for children. What kind of expectations, though? And, how do we adjust our expectations as those growing children show varying aptitudes--across different skill sets, and compared to their peers?

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