A 'Round Robin' of Tests
With the increased interest in competency tests and national standards comes committees, committees charged with determining what kinds of information a pupil should be required to know to reach some national standard and what should be on the tests.
These committees are made up of experts in their fields--social studies, mathematics, science, geography, etc.--who reach some consensus about what a pupil should know. Unfortunately, it seems they get carried away with the enthusiasm they have for their subjects and their ability to teach them. Their expectations become more and more unrealistic as they exchange opinions about the importance of this or that. Not only are the results of their efforts often beyond the abilities of the pupils, they are even beyond the limits of the teacher to cover the material in the time allotted. (This is an illustration of one of Murphy's many laws: To the person who doesn't have to do the job, nothing is impossible.)
Once the committee has given birth to the course of study that is going to turn our pupils into a race of giants, the material to be taught must be tested for. After all, how can you tell the kids have learned anything unless you test them in some way? So another committee makes up what it perceives are appropriate test questions to measure what the pupils are supposed to have learned.
Since everyone involved in the project has a particular interest in the subject under consideration, it is presumed they know what a pupil should know. Their curricula and tests reflect this ... and this helps explain why so many of these programs fail. In most cases, the tests are not validated properly.
Here is the way said tests should be validated. Once the committee for, say, social studies, has completed its program and tests, its tests should be administered to the members of the committee that put together the program and tests for mathematics. The committee for mathematics should pass along its tests to the committee on geography. This "round robin'' of tests should continue until all of the tests have been taken by the members of all the committees working on creating "world class'' courses of study.
After the round robin, any question missed by, say, 60 percent of those experts and teachers on committees not involved in the subject matter of the test should be eliminated from the test. If 60 percent (or whatever is decided to be appropriate) of the presumed educated and knowledgeable curriculum planners cannot answer questions outside their area of expertise, such knowledge cannot be all that important--certainly not important enough to expect mere children to know all that stuff--and those questions should be eliminated.
Not only would this procedure reduce the depth and size of what comes out of these committees to something more realistic for a real classroom, it would likely go a long way to introduce some humility in the planners. Just as an exercise it would be interesting to learn how many experts in science can answer the same kinds of questions about social studies we expect kids to answer. It also might help us to better understand the difference between what we believe should be the "common knowledge'' of educated people and what is merely ego gratification of a committee carried away with its own wonderfulness.
Charles M. Breinin, a writer in Tonawanda, N.Y., is a retired high school teacher and social-studies department chairman.