Tuesday, January 17, 2017

Motivation and Standardized Testing

In the Viewpoint section on Sunday, January 8, 2016, in the Memphis newspaper the Commercial Appeal (the opinion section with op ed pieces), a white teacher named Carly Fricano wrote a column in which she described a conversation with one of her students. Ms. Fricano works for the heavily African American school district in Shelby County, and the student was named Marquavan, so I am assuming he was African American.

The student came up to her and said, "Ms Fricano, I know you think I'm dumb or something, but I'm not."

"What makes you say that I think you're dumb?" She replied.

"You keep giving me these tests that say I don't know this stuff, but I do. I just don't really care about these tests."

I italicized the last statement because it makes a point I have sometimes made. Even though this story is just anecdotal, I believe it is a valid representation of the folly of using standardized tests alone to evaluate teacher competency, the intelligence of the test taker, their academic achievement, or much of anything else actually. The problem is that there is no way to control for a student's motivation to do well on the test, and without that, you may be getting more of a measure of how little or how much the student is trying to answer correctly on the test than of how much he or she actually knows or is capable of learning.

And teachers do not have a lot of weapons they can employ to help students get motivated to perform well if the student's parents do not care about that either. The parents' attitude is the far bigger problem than that of less-than-competent teachers.

Of course, in saying this I will no doubt be accused of "parent bashing" and/or discounting the sad legacy of racism in determining the attitudes of both the parents and the students. To that I call, "Bullshit!"

Of course the parents play a huge role in determining their children's attitude towards learning. Do you really think that the relatively higher average achievements of Asian and Jewish students are just a result of their having higher average IQ's? That's nonsense. It's the family attitudes of Asians and Jews that is the primary determining factor.

And what about the other nonsense about my discounting the effects of racism in discussing African American student achievement? One can only accuse me of that if they think that I believe that these families reside in some sort of cultural vacuum. Or if they themselves are ignoring the wider context! It isn't only scientists who can be reductionistic.

Actually, it IS the racism that is the larger cause of the attitudes of many African American parents (and of course not all of them have troublesome attitudes - not by a long shot. I just said that, so please do not say I did not).

I will oversimplify the process in order to make it clear, but not really by much: Under slavery and Jim Crow, the latter of which existed for quite some time during my own lifetime, Whites' mistreatment of Blacks was justified on the basis of Blacks being thought of as stupid and lazy and therefore somehow less than human. 

Any black person who tried to disprove that mythology by sticking his neck out and showing how intelligent he really was was ritually and routinely humiliated, beaten, or even lynched and killed. Entire neighborhoods of successful black businesses were attacked and burned to the ground.

Culturally, this understandably led to a lot of fear within Black communities of looking too smart in front of white people, or even among themselves. This fear was then transmitted to the children by the parents - for the kids' own protection from the very real negative consequences, not because the parents had some innate defect or deficit. When these children grew up and had children themselves, they may not have completely understood where the fear had came from originally, but the damage to their attitude about education, success, and intelligence was already done. 

And the ongoing racism of Whites that is still evident all around them reinforces their fears. And so their kids "catch" it.

And thus we have the Marquavans of the inner city. 

I am afraid it is up to African American parents themselves to solve this problem, despite the continuing racism by Whites all around them, by taking the bull by the horns and learning how they have been affected, and by starting to start push their children to succeed academically. 

The fact that the odds may be stacked against their children is no excuse. That makes their success more difficult; it does not make it impossible. And the risks of Black success are now greatly reduced from what they had been. Not nearly as many lynchings these days. And please do not tell me that the last statements mean I am discounting current ongoing racist attitudes among Whites, or the fact that law enforcement still reacts with more violence and worse punishments against black suspects than white ones, because the statements simply do not do that.