Peevish about Percentiles

I just love the mentality ol’ Gilbert Highet states in his work, The Art of Teaching. He explains his title by stating,

“I believe that teaching is an art, not a science. It seems to me very dangerous to apply the aims and methods of science to human beings as individuals, although a statistical principle can often be used to explain their behavior in very large groups and a scientific diagnosis of their physical structure is always valuable. But a ‘scientific’ relationship between human beings is bound to be inadequate and perhaps distorted. Teaching involves emotions, which cannot be systematically appraised and employed, and human values, which are quite outside the grasp of science. A ‘scientifically’ brought-up child would be a pitiable monster…You must throw your heart into it, you must realize that it cannot all be done by formulas, or you will spoil your work, and your pupils, and yourself.”

This sets the tone for my point of peevish punctiliousness regarding viewing the abilities of children from the vantage of percentile rankings. We are enamored with false notions of objectivity. If we can simply get any idea to the point of number, we feel we have a handle on the idea. At their foundation, this is the notion of standardized tests. We want to know we are doing our job in schools better than half or more of the rest of the nation. But what does this number, this “ranking” do for us? Does it alter our goals? Does it alter our technique or manner of teaching? Do we then begin teaching to the test?

Especially for those in CCE, do standardized tests even measure our objectives? Just what habits of learning are measured in multiple choice answer sheets? The habit of filling in circles with a No.2 pencil? I am being a little supercilious, but the point is still there. I have always believed that a teacher begins with a standard, a norm, a high goal, usually involving a habit or virtue they are seeking to cultivate in the student. From that a lesson is designed, then taught. To see if we have accomplished our goal, we must assess the student’s progress. If we are seeking a goal of virtue or habit, then it must be assessed with that in mind. In shorter terms, I do not believe in teaching to the “test,” especially the standardized one. We teach to the goal; we test to the goal.

Should we even partake of the standardized test? I think there is a limited benefit that should cause our participation to be limited. Comparison is a classical notion. I see no benefit in subjecting Kindergarten or First grade students to such tests. Early grammar students should perhaps endure the basic battery. Older students can compare in more areas. The largest single factor moderating my actions as an administrator in this regard is simply the addiction most parents have to such things. As our movement grows, perhaps we will be able to manufacture some standardized exams that test to our goals and objectives. Until then, we do the best we can with what we have. But we must not fall prey to the temptation to “teach to the test.” We are seeking higher ground.


2 thoughts on “Peevish about Percentiles”

  1. I pray that the CCE world doesn’t manufacture any standardized tests. The very notion of standardization (the fact that the assessment can be given in such a de-humanized, homogenized manner to any group of people, anywhere, regardless of their experiences, and produce the same verifiable, quantifiable results) doesn’t jive with the goals of classical ed as I understand them. I don’t believe that students in a school can produce “achievement” with the same replicability with which scientists perform their experiments. The idea that they can bows down at the altar of materialism.
    In addition, I’ve seen too many students being treated as no more than a percentile ranking or a certain competency level, and I’ve heard far too many teachers forced to make their instructional priorities based on student’s past and future test performance, rather than on their needs, course objectives, or issues of relevance for those students.

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