The Other I

September 23, 2012

The cage called the normal curve

Filed under: Just Stuff,Teaching — theotheri @ 4:27 pm
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 In the last couple of weeks, test results determining the future for thousands of students have been announced here in Britain.  The scores have caused an unusual amount of disappointment and anger because the cut-off point for getting into university or various apprenticeships was raised without being announced beforehand.

Fundamentally the problem is one with which I was greatly concerned during my professional years.  The task is to develop assessments that will direct students into those careers and jobs where they are most suited.  Sounds a lot easier than it is.  Because the risk is either to miss identifying the most gifted, or to demotivate as many as half the students as ” below average,” and not worth much.  One mother in Scotland expressed the preference of many – don’t fail our students;  we know what the grades mean.

The problem, though, is that we really don’t.  Universities and employers alike are saying that scores are too inflated and it is often impossible to identify those who are the most appropriate for the positions available.

The difficulty  begins with the assumption of the normal curve.  Psychologists have been constructing intelligence and aptitude tests for more than a century based on the assumption that 65% of the population have IQ’s which are average – that is between 85 and 115.  But only one person in 50 has an IQ over 135, and one in half a million has an IQ of over 200.  These are gifted people, and society needs them.  We all need them and benefit from their being able to develop and use their gifts.  But if tests do no more than label students in terms of their placed on this normal curve, one-half of our population is below average.

Sending a message to half the young people in our schools that they are below average — with all the implications for self-worth and value — is unbelievably cruel, destructive, and a terrible loss to us all.

So educators have swung between over-emphasizing either the critical importance of finding the most gifted students, or of developing the skills of all the students, sometimes in practice as identifying everyone as “above average.”  This is, in fairness, oversimplifying the attempted solutions, but it does broadly illustrate the challenge.

Part of the solution, I think, is to recognize that intelligence and talent is not nearly as uni-dimensional as traditional tests have assumed.  There are psychologists who have developed concepts of intelligence and aptitude that are  multi-dimensional, which cover a much broader assessment of abilities that traditional tests.

Instead of putting so much emphasis on the normal curve, tests which aim to identify the strongest abilities of each student could emphasize the greatest potential in everyone.  I can’t see any reason why we can’t emphasize what is best in each individual without putting so much emphasis on where each one fits in a great monolithic hierarchy on the one hand, or pretending that all skills are equally difficult.  We all know that they are not.  That does not mean that each person is not important or does not have a contribution to make.

Again, I appreciate that this is easier said than done.  But it’s an alternative to dealing with grade inflation by failing more students on the one hand, or lowering standards so that nobody is unduly challenged or ever faces the possibility of failing on the other.

PS:  I know I’ve made this sound simple.  And I’ve grappled with it for too long not to appreciate that it is not simple.  It’s a narrow path and falling on either side destroys too much potential of future generations.

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