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From Trivia Games to Performance Evaluation

Donald G. Perrin


In an effort to reduce all knowledge, skills, and attitudes in the universe to true/false, multiple-choice, and matching, we have done education a disservice. The Stanford-Binet intelligence scales invented at the beginning of the twentieth century provided the model for a plethora of assessment and evaluation devices. They produced magical numbers that determine who goes to college, gets affordable financing, or is selected for societal privileges.

The No Child Left Behind Act takes it a step further. It singles out schools in communities with a higher than normal percentage of minorities, disabilities, English as a Second Language, and economic distress, for punishment under Federal Law. By definition, half of the students will perform below average, and those averages are specific to parameters established by testing and measurement organizations. Educators are aware that results of these paper and pencil tests are only indicators and supplement them with other data. However, the numbers and the misnomer “objective” test, still control the outcomes.

Attempts to reform the system have come from many disciplines. Robert Mager, an engineer, suggested that objectives should be stated in terms that are observable and measurable – a description of the outcomes of learning. He even went the additional step to describe the conditions under which the performance was observed. But many teachers found such objectives laborious and difficult to write. Some even believed what they taught was so esoteric it could not be written as an objective.

Benjamin Bloom came to the rescue, pointing out that knowledge is like a pyramid with many levels, the base levels being knowledge, comprehension, and application, with analysis, synthesis, and evaluation at higher levels of learning. Academicians developed lists of action verbs ascribed to these different levels. Many teachers found the system too complicated. They never caught on that if you test performance at the highest levels, it subsumes lower levels of learning. For the most part, additional pyramids for skills and attitudes were ignored.

Enter the computer. Now it was possible to measure and record every action. Powerful analysis techniques gave us information about learning and each individual learner that was hitherto impossible. A much broader range of performance could be measured – every response, every action, how fast, how accurately, how well! Computers were not limited to words and trivia, they could simultaneously test a full range of knowledge skills, and attitudes through interactive multi-media, games, simulations, and real-life experience. This gave rise to learning management systems, learning objects, and extensions of human abilities through machines and artificial intelligence. R2D2, the astromech droid in Star Wars, is a futuristic model of an intelligence based on the life experience of its master, Luke Skywalker.

In this issue of the Journal, Bill Gates describes the need to improve high school education. The research articles that follow focus on new technologies to find relevant information and ways to use critical thinking to enhance performance of teachers and learners.


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