The Danger in Using a Test Score as a Measure of Student Achievement

A Wordle display of science concepts forming the typical high school science curriculum in any country in the world

It doesn’t matter whether you are high school student or teacher in Madrid,  Manila, Marietta, Manchester, Moscow, Mumbai, or Montevideo, the chances are that you will study or teach the same concepts in the high school science curriculum.  The science concepts that I have shown using  “Wordle” (Wordle a neat program for generating ‘word clouds’ from text) may not include all the concepts that you teach, but it reflects the richness of the content of high school science.

In many schools around the world, students are required to take a 2 – 3 hour exit-examination in science (as well as other subjects in the curriculum).  And in today’s school environment at the state, national & international level, test scores are use synonymously with achievement. Indeed, the fact that we can attach a number to the test score, and use it compare scores from one school to another, one year to another, makes the notion of a test score even more believable.  We’ve come to believe that this test score is the measure of student achievement.

Yet when we look at this word map of science concepts, and note the range of ideas teachers explore with their students, we have to ask: Does a single exit-, high-stakes examination do justice to find out what high school students learn & knoq, and high school teachers present and teach in their classes?

For the past thirty years, there has been a movement, beginning at the state level, to define the science curriculum K -12 by writing statements describing what students should know and learn at the end of various levels of schooling. One of the earliest efforts was in Florida in the 1970’s.  There they developed objectives & test items for the K – 12 science curriculum. I speak from experience as I was involved in this process as a researcher at Florida State University, and project director at Georgia State University.   Other states followed, and by the early 1990’s, the National Academy of Sciences published the National Science Education Standards.  The intensions of the Standards are laudable, with the desire for all students to achieve scientific literacy.

Yet, the notion of standards has led us down a path that needs to be questioned.  Once national standards were developed, most states developed their own standards, and then hired test developing firms to design elaborate assessment systems based on the standards.  Then in 2002, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law, corralling school systems, schools, and state departments of education into a situation in which accountability, from “top-down” was the major determinant in the day-to-day life of teachers and students.

In an article entitled Debunking the Case for National Standards, Alfie Kohn, asks if we’ve lost our minds after the “common-standards movement” led by politicians, corporate CEO’s and companies that produce standardized tests, are mandating (nearly all States have bought into this & the Race to the Top Funds requires it), the development of a common set of standards in math and reading.  This will lead to common standards in science, social studies and other subjects.  And of course, this will lead to a “common set of achievement tests.”

This is a dangerous situation.  It’s dangerous because the test score itself is thought of as a real measure of what a student has learned.

The problem with the testing movement and the common standards movement is that it is led by a relatively small group of people, and as Kohn points out, most, if not all, are far removed from the nation’s classrooms.  Standards amount to the categorization of objectives (or concept statements) that a particular group thinks students in various grade levels should know or learn.  But does it matter if our nation has a set of standards that a small group claims are important, and then forces onto the entire educational establishment in the USA, which is comprised of about 15,000 individual & diverse school systems.  Kohn answers this in the following way:

It’s not only that national standards are unnecessary, they’re also based on the premise that “our teachers cannot be trusted to make decisions about which curriculum is best for their schools,” as the University of Chicago’s Zalman Usiskin put it. Moreover, uniformity doesn’t just happen—and continue—on its own. Someone has to make everyone apply the same standards. What happens, then, to educators who disagree with some of them or with, say, the premise that teaching must be split into separate disciplines? What are the implications of accepting a system characterized by what Deborah Meier has called “centralized power over ideas”?

Implicit in following the common standards route is the danger that will lurk in the subsequent tests that will be developed by testing companies—and that danger is in believing that these tests will be a measure of student achievement in our nation’s schools.   Teachers need to be seen as decision-makers, and professions who are quite able to work locally to develop curriculum relevant to the students they teach.

How Knowledge of Geology will be Important in Rebuilding Haiti

According to reports from Haiti, the relief effort is in full swing, and although search and rescue efforts were officially stopped, in truth,  they are still happening, and of course this is a hopeful event for the people in Haiti.  According to Christiane Amanpour, the U.N. is beginning to work toward the clearing away of debris by hiring Haitians, and also is encouraging as many people as possible to travel to other parts of the country to be with family and friends, away from the center of the earthquake damaged Port-Au-Prince.  Yet this has resulted in the destination towns being overwhelmed with people, but without any supporting resources.

Plate and Fault Systems in the Caribbean and Haiti

As the U.N. and the Haitian government make plans for the reconstruction and rebuilding Port-Au-Prince, and surrounding communities, it will be crucial buildings and roads be designed with knowledge fault lines, and potential earthquake zones.

To geologists, there was no surprise that the 7.0 earthquake occurred, as cruel as it was to the people of Haiti.  As shown in the Plate and Fault Systems map shows, there are two horizontal east/west faults.  It was movement along one of these two faults, the Enriquillo Fault, a strike-slip fault, that caused the 7.0 earthquake.  Geologists have reported that there have been earthquakes along this fault line, the most recent about 200 years ago.

Plate Movements in the Caribbean

The seismic activity in the region is caused the movement of tectonic plates.  In a New York Times article, the geology of the region is explored by Henry Fountain.  In this piece, Fountain reports that:

The recent quake on the Enriquillo fault and the forecast for the Septentrional are bleak reminders that the Caribbean is an active seismic zone, one with many hazards. Major earthquakes have regularly devastated the region’s cities, including the Jamaican capital, Kingston, which was destroyed twice in three centuries.

In the reconstruction of Haiti, it will be important that the knowledge of the potential for earthquakes be taken into account in the development of new buildings, especially schools and hospitals.

Humanitarian Assistance for Haiti

The United Nations initiated a “flash appeal” for assistance after the devastation earthquake in Haiti.  As the map below shows, the earthquake intensity, based on the Modified Mercalli Intensity Scale (a measure of the violence of earth motion).  Here is a map from USAID which shows the earthquake intensity from the epicenter out to surrounding areas of the country.  The fact that such extreme, violent, and severe intensity was experienced by so many people has resulted in the worst disaster in the Western Hemisphere in recorded history.

United States Agency for International Development Earthquake-Intensity Map

The United Nations, individual nations, and relief and charity organizations mobilized immediately after the earthquake.  The United Nations implemented a flash appeal for resources and money as shown in the chart below.  The initial appeal amounted to about $575 million, and as can be seen in the chart, many organizations and countries have responded to the appeal.  Assistance has also extended beyond this initial flash appeal to individual organizations, and last night’s Hope for Haiti Now Telethon which raised more than $57 million in the USA, and $16 million in Canada.

United Nations Flash Appeal Snapshot

As we listen to people who are on the ground helping the Haitian people, and working with their respective organizations to build an infrastructure that will bring food, shelter and medical care to the people who have been hurt by this earthquake.

Assessment of the Haiti Earthquake and Aftershocks

The aftershocks that have rocked the region near the 7.0 earthquake of January 12 in Haiti will continue for months, if not years, according to a report by the United States Geological Survey (USGS).  It is important to understand the nature of the seismic activity in this region as this knowledge will be significant in the near-term relief efforts, but perhaps more importantly, in the long term rebuilding of the infrastructure of the country near Port-Au-Prince, and the many surrounding communities.

M7.0 Haiti Earthquake and Aftershocks Map. Click on map to go to USGS active map site.

Here is a brief synopsis of the USGS assessment of the 7.0 earthquake and the aftershocks.

Aftershocks. According to the USGS, aftershocks will continue for months if not years in the area seen on the map here.  The map shows the initial earthquake (largest red circle), and the aftershocks as of January 21.  The USGS initial assessment includes the possibility of an earthquake greater than 7.0 (less than 3%), but earthquakes ranging from 5.0 to 6.0 have a higher probability.

Precautions.  As we watch the pictures and video from Haiti, we are all aware of the rescue activity that is in progress where the work is being done in damaged structures, which are extremely vulnerable to further destruction by these aftershocks.  Aftershocks (earthquakes) in the 5.0 range are quite powerful, especially since these earthquakes are fairly shallow with the energy being concentrated near the surface.

Concerns for the Near-term.  As I have discussed, the fault that caused the Port-Au-Prince earthquake is part of a very active seismic region existing between the North American and Caribbean tectonic plates.

The Caribbean Plate showing its boundaries with the North American, Cocos, & South American Plates

The Caribbean Plate is an oceanic tectonic plate that encompasses roughly 3.2×106 km² and underlies Central America and the Caribbean Sea off the north coast of South America.  As you can see on the map is located between not only the North American Plates, but the Cocos plate to the west, and the South American plate to the south.  The North American Plate is a tectonic plate covering most of North America, Greenland and parts of Siberia and Iceland.  The boundary between the North American and Caribbean plates is what geologists call a strike-slip fault or transform boundary.  It is along this boundary that the 7.0 Haiti earthquake occurred.  As seen on the map this boundary extends across quite a distance starting in east in the Virgin Islands, extending westward through Puerto Rico, Hispaniola (Haiti & The Dominican Republic), continuing to Cuba, and then into Honduras, Guatemala, and Belize.  This entire boundary is active seismically.

Topography along the Enriquillo-Plaintain Garden Fault, Haiti

In fact many geologists describe the area between these two plates as a micro-tectonic plate, that is being squeezed and ruptured by the three plates that surround it.  In the USGS report, geologists suggested that the earthquake did relieve some of the stress on the fault system, but they caution that the Enriquillo fault to the east of the January 12 earthquake is still under great stress, and could result in a damaging earthquake in the future. The red lines on the map indicate fault zones, which the black circles show the location and magnitude of earthquakes in the region.

Long-term Concerns.  As shown in the map above, Haiti has major fault zones cutting across the country, and the historical record shows that major earthquakes have happened in this region of intense seismic activity.   Rebuilding of structures in Haiti needs to take into account the effect of earthquake shaking on buildings.  Structures need to be designed that take this into account, and meet standards that will help new building withstand intense ground movements.  One area that the report emphasizes is that it is essential that structures such as hospitals and schools be rebuilt with greater ability to withstand earthquakes.

Caribbean Seismicity.  The Haiti earthquake was the result of earth movement along a fault that is part of the zone between the Caribbean and North American tectonic or crustal plates.  This region, is sometimes called a small-scale “ring of fire,” analogous to the Pacific rim “ring of fire.”  It includes Puerto Rico, Jamaica, Dominican Republic, Martinque, and Guadeloupe.  The map below shows the extent of the seismic activity in the Caribbean, as well as to the region further to the West along the coast of South America.  Rebuilding efforts in the region need to take into account the knowledge we have of seismic activity in the region.

Seismicity of the Caribbean Tectonic Plate region, USGS

Haiti Relief Effort: Global Resources & Agencies

The Haiti relief effort is in full operation, with the United Nations, individual relief organizations, the U.S. government including the U.S. military and eight additional departments and agencies within the government, and humanitarian aid, and resources from countries around the world.  The earthquake caused widespread damage, and ruined the infrastructure of the country.  The head of the International Monetary Fund has called for a “Marshall-like Plan” to help rebuild the country, and help establish a viable infrastructure and economy.   This blog post comments on some of the efforts that are underway.

In lessons learned from the 2004 tsunami in Indonesia, the United Nations developed a “Cluster System” to coordinate relief efforts.  The purpose of the cluster system is to put experts on the ground as soon as possible, and to organize them into groups based on expertise.   For example, according to U.N. officials, there are meetings every day at 3 p.m. at the Ministry of Water in Port-au-Prince, in the offices which have not been too badly damaged, so that all water and sanitation agencies will go to that meeting and coordinate how they best respond.  Although the cluster system is not without its critics, it was implemented in recent disasters in the Pakistan earthquake, and floods in the Philippines.

Port-Au-Prince Medical Infrastructure Information, Jan. 22

Another example of the cluster system is the Health Cluster, in which partners will work with the national health authorities and health partners to ensure a coordinated response to the needs of the Haitian population.

Here is a list of some of the efforts underway in Haiti, and links to further information.

United Nations Humanitarian Map of Haiti

United Nations.  The U.N. has a multi-pronged effort underway involving Children (UNICEF), Development (UN Development Program), Food (World Food Program), Health (UNAIDS & World Health Organization), Humanitarian Coordination (OCHA), and Population (United Nations Population Fund)

U.S. Haiti Earthquake Relief.  Firstly, if you go to this White House site, you will find links to many agencies within the Federal Government which are directly involved in relief efforts in Haiti.  The most visible form of assistance has been the U.S. Military, and you can visit this site to find out how U.S. Defense Department is aiding the Haitian population. You can find how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services is helping at this site.  An important part of the effort is organized by USAID.  USAID is an independent federal government agency that receives overall foreign policy guidance from the Secretary of State.  The U.S. Department of State has established this website that describes its activities, and how the Department of State is helping the Haitian people.  You can link to the U.S. Embassy in Port-Au-Prince, Haiti at this website.  Further assistance is provided by Department of Homeland Security, and the Interior Department.

Independent Aid Organizations.  There are many organizations that have had a presence in Haiti long before the January 12th earthquake.  These humanitarian organizations are there on the ground, working to help the people of Haiti.  There is a very extensive list of these organizations at this New York Times site for your information.