The Problem: Using Standard Statistical Measurements to Analyze Data to Improve Educational Outcomes

This article is the first of five highlighting five problems which work together and create a system which makes improving education a difficult task.  Tackling each of the problems individually may require a significant amount of effort, but when all the elements of a system work in concert with each other, if they’re all not addressed simultaneously, then improvement will prove to be quite difficult.

This article focuses on assessment, which presents three problems:

  1. The Subjective/Objective Debate
  2. The Current Grading Scale
  3. The Incorrect Focus

The Subjective/Objective Debate is at the core for today’s learning assessment difficulties.  Standardized Testing utilizes objective questions, such as multiple choice, completion and true/false, producing a score which may not be indicative of learning, but of examination mastery.  Subjective assessment may serve as a better demonstrative vehicle, such as project creation or the ability to teach a lesson on subject matter, but the scoring rubric is usually created by the instructor, and is therefore difficult to compare across a wide range of learners.  What may be acceptable in one situation may be considered to be mastery in another.

The Current Grading Scale considers “C” to be average achievement, and then applies that to a bell curve of scores.  A bell curve is great to determine tolerances, and decreasing the acceptable tolerances creates product or process improvement.  In other words, a standard grading scale shows 100 percent as an A+, 90-99 percent as an A, 80-89 percent as a B, 70 to 79 percent as a C, 60 to 69 percent as a D, and anything 59 and below as a failing score.  There are some progressive schools that have “shrunk” the tolerances, creating an 8 point tolerance rather than a 10 point tolerance.  The scale is adjusted so that 93-100 percent is an A, 85-92 percent is a B, 77-84 percent is a C, 69-76 is a D, and anything 68 or below is a failing grade.  The problem is that if the tolerances continue to be decreased, more and more students run the risk of falling behind or needed additional assistance to achieve to the new scale, rather than achieving to their maximum potential.

The Incorrect Focus deals with the fact that historical assessment has focused on “the number wrong” rather than on “the number right.”  Assessment needs to both assess as well as affirm.  Teachers are now starting to focus on grading papers with a green pen instead of a red pen, and showing the number correct rather than the number wrong.  The human condition prefers increase rather than decrease.  We grow.  We like to our pay increase.  We like when our bank balances increase.  Conversely, we find that losing weight is difficult.  We hate paying bills.  Therefore, the experience in the classroom should be to show the number correct.  While this is a great practice, it should also offer comparative scaling.  Therefore, keep the red pen, but instead of showing the number wrong, show the number right in green, but also show the comparison grade – an increase from the previous exam in green, or a decrease in red.  The decrease will then shown as a comparative, rather than focusing on the number of incorrect responses on the individual assessment.

It’s important to remember that in the spirit of systems thinking, this first article should not be interpreted as the most important element to address because it has been stated first.  All five articles will highlight elements that work together as a system, so be sure to catch up on the next four articles over the next four weeks to see how all five interact systemically.