Finding the Next Einstein

Why smart is relative

Do We Have Trouble Taking Objective Feedback?

Standardized tests: Are we shooting at the messenger?

This cartoon has been shared well over 300,000 times.  It is from Quick Meme and titled “Our Education System In A Nutshell.”  It apparently resonates widely with people.  It initially resonated with me.  I felt terrible for the poor fish stuck in his bowl who felt stupid because he couldn't climb the tree.  That is, until I actually stopped to think.

The cartoon is extremely misleading and an inappropriate analogy to our education system.  And it uses a false quote from a famous person to give it empty authority.

The ablity to climb the tree essentially represents performance on a standardized test, which is fair, because a test does not know what you look like, whether you are a guy or girl, and is objective, unlike evaluation from a person, which is typically skewed to that person's biases.

Problem #1: In our education system on planet earth we are all the same species.  Pretty much all of us have ten toes, two eyes, and one brain.  And we all have to find work among the jobs that are available to humans.  So the cartoon would be accurate if it showed a line of humans as students.  I have no idea why the teacher is a human, but the students are animals.

Problem #2: The implicit assumption that a standardized test is probably not indicative of later success is flawed.  Many decades of research has demonstrated that standardized tests predict education and job performance across many domains quite well.  See this piece by Zach Hambrick and Chris Chabris on Slate.

Problem #3: The quote is supposedly from Einstein.  If you read this investigation into locating the source, it cannot be found.

Therefore, the only reason I can think of as to why so many people resonate with this cartoon is that it represents what they wish was true.

Standardized tests tell us uncomfortable truths about ourselves.  And this is why they are constantly being attacked, whether tests used for selection in K-12, the SAT or ACT used for selection in college admissions, or the PISA and OECD tests used for international comparisons.  In fact, standardized tests have been consistently attacked for many decades.

In an address delivered at the 1978 annual convention of the American Psychological Association, Barbara Lerner said: “Tests are under attack today because they tell us truths about ourselves and our society; partial truths, to be sure, but truths nonetheless and, in recent years, many of these truths have been unpleasant and unflattering.  Seen in this perspective, the attack on tests is, to a very considerable and frightening degree, an attack on truth itself by those who deal with unpleasant and unflattering truths by denying them and by attacking and trying to destroy the evidence for them.”

This essentially stems, in part, from “evaluation anxiety.”  Stewart Donaldson and colleagues write: “Most people experience anxiety when their behavior or achievements are being evaluated.  Whether evaluations are formal, as in the case of standardized achievement testing, or informal, such as being picked to be part of a soccer team or cheerleading squad, the experience of being evaluated, critiqued, or judged commonly results in an emotional reaction of uneasiness, uncertainty, or apprehension.”

It is true standardized tests, which are imperfect tools, are not the only instrument we can use to select and evaluate students to provide them with feedback.  As Donaldson et al. point out, evaluation comes in many forms throughout life—essentially it is receiving objective feedback about our performance in some domain.  However, in life, it is hard to get better at anything if you aren’t willing to receive feedback and make changes to improve your performance.

I think we need to take a step back and ask ourselves: Is it standardized tests we don’t want?  Or is it objective feedback we don’t want?  To me, it sounds like we would prefer not to have objective feedback, and so we are attacking one messenger: standardized tests.  Perhaps instead of attacking the messenger, a more constructive approach would be to deeply consider the objective feedback from tests as well as many other sources, and then take action to improve ourselves.

© 2014 by Jonathan Wai

You can follow me on Twitter, Facebook, or G+. For more of Finding the Next Einstein: Why Smart is Relative go here.

Jonathan Wai, Ph.D., is a psychologist, writer, and research scientist at Duke University.

 
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