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A Benchmark for Learning

Donald Perrin

Traditional evaluation assigns students into categories A, B, C, D and F. These “relative” grades are based on a bell shaped curve – the same curve used to express the Intelligence Quotient (IQ). Use of multiple-choice and similar “objective” test instruments enable performance to be measured as numbers and converted to letter grades. For greater precision, letter grades can be assigned a + or – .

Blooms Taxonomy of Behavioral Objectives enables us to define learning outcomes and conditions under which performance is measured. It also differentiates between knowledge, skills, and affective behaviors. For half a century teachers have wrestled with these concepts. Many teachers found these difficult implement and relegated the taxonomies to designers of curriculum and instruction. Subsequently there were efforts to define a “standards based” curriculum and use rubrics to determine progress.

Quality of teaching is derived from student and peer evaluations. Such measurements are biased by language and cultural factors, and express more about how well the course or instructor is liked than what was taught or learned.

Standardized tests have been corrupted by teaching-the-test, and even teaching answers to the test. So long as there are high stakes for top scores, there will be cheating by both students and teachers. Competition for high scores is narrowing the curriculum to tested items so students learn more and more about less and less.

If education is preparation for life in the future, it should focus on life skills and knowledge that is relevant. This is not to deny the value of a classical education, but to place education into a practical framework where curiosity, exploration, history, literature, theory, measurement, problem solving, creativity, aesthetics and ethics have their logical place. It also suggests benchmarks rather than grades for core curriculum and electives.

In industry, quality control ensures every product meets or exceeds specifications. Imagine buying an automobile constructed by educators. Depending on which students were assigned, a factory assembled automobile might a B engine, C brakes, and D safety features. Who would buy such a car? So why do we accept this in education?

Instead of giving every student the same education, measuring the result, and sending the student forward, educators should persevere until the required learning (benchmark) is achieved. Instead of time (identical treatment) being constant and learning a variable, we must make learning a constant. With modern prescriptive and diagnostic tools and individualized methods of instruction, the basic learning experience can be customized for different learner needs. This does not require additional instructors, it requires learning technologies that set the teacher free for small group and one-to-one tutorials and learning experiences. These concepts require teachers to be trained in learner centered learning to gain mastery in the newer teaching-learning paradigms.

Many institutions are adopting computer management and interactive media to enhance the overall quality of instruction – and learning. These distance learning tools are often adopted for on-campus instruction as their value becomes evident. But we are stuck with the traditional evaluation instruments and standardized tests that are tied to a set of standards for a world that no longer exists. As we implement new learning technologies we must evaluate performance criteria and relevance. Every student must reach the desired standard. The question is how to adequately give credit to students who exceed all expectations in terms of performance and problem solving abilities. Genius demands respect, but education must serve everyone.

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