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Sunday, September 25, 2005

Standards-based Education, Part IV

Standards-based education encourages us to give untimed tests. This idea makes a lot of sense: if I want to tell whether a student can solve a quadratic equation, I shouldn’t be testing how fast s/he can solve the equation. The important thing is knowledge of skills and concepts and the ability to apply that knowledge — not speed.

And yet...

Consider two students. Student A has learned all the material thoroughly and can efficiently solve problems, even when they are unfamiliar and require creative thinking. Student B has done no studying or other preparation and has to reconstruct how to solve every problem, either by guess-and-check or by elaborate work-arounds. What purports to be a 45-minute test is completed by A in 30 minutes and by B in 90. Both students eventually get 88% of the problems right. Do they deserve the same grade?

Perhaps B deserves a higher grade, for having done such a good job of thinking. Or perhaps A does, for having learned the material.

B has demonstrated an important skill, but is that skill the one that’s being tested? B still doesn’t know how to solve quadratic equations.

And yet...

As John Holt put it, “The true test of intelligence is not how much we know how to do, but how we behave when we don’t know what to do.” This is indeed the true test of intelligence, but we aren’t doing high-school students any service if we leave them unprepared for SATs and for college exams because we let them take as much time as they want in order to make up for what they haven’t learned. There must be a place for timed work and a place for untimed work.

(A separate issue is the one of limited extra time. Certain students, who have demonstrated learning disabilities, are legally allowed 50% or 100% extra time on tests. Their tests are still timed, but an adjustment is made in the amount of time.)

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