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Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Teacher Wisdom and Standardized Test Scores

I hate to wait. I always have. Waiting is frustrating. As a kid I hated waiting in the lunch line. As an adult, I hate waiting in the supermarket checkout line. As an educator, I hated waiting for standardized test results. Following state testing I would ask teachers how well they thought the kids did. I always got vague, sometimes encouraging answers. In contrast, when I was asked about test scores I always commented that things looked promising but that we would have to “wait and see”. Of course “wait and see” meant waiting 3 months or more to get the final results from the state. I would have paid some serious cash for a crystal ball. Little did I know that the crystal ball was right in front of me.

I’m not alone; lots of educators would like to know the percentage of students who will meet/exceed standards this year on state tests. Administrators would avoid sleepless nights if they knew that answer. James Surowiecki’s The Wisdom of Crowds may hold the answer. Surowiecki’s thesis is that “large groups of people are smarter than an elite few, no matter how brilliant—better at solving problems, fostering innovation, coming to wise decisions, even predicting the future.”

Surowiecki identifies four key qualities that make crowds smart. According to him, for crowds to be smart, they need to be diverse, decentralized, independent, and they need to possess a means to summarize their opinions into a collective verdict.

In my experience public school faculties possess the four key qualities that make a crowd smart. After all, teachers are diverse because they bringing different pieces of information to the table. Teachers are decentralized because no one at the top is dictating their answers. Teachers also tend to be fiercely independent, in that they pay attention mostly to their own information, and don’t worry about what everyone around them thinks. In this instance, predicting state test scores, it is relatively easy to summarize teachers’ opinions into one collective verdict—average the predicted scores.

My advice to administrators is to ask the faculty to predict the school’s performance on the standardized test. That’s right; just ask all the teachers, not just the ones that teach the testing grade, to anonymously predict how well the students will do. Collect the data, and take the average. If the faculty size is large, diverse, and independent enough, then they should be able to zero in on the percentage of students who meet/exceed state standards. When the real results come in, compare them. Let me know how it goes.

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