David Foster posted Skipping Science Class, Continued on 5/28/08. Here is an excerpt:
A couple of days ago, the Telegraph had an article about the British Government’s new national science test and the unbelievably simplistic questions it contains. For example:This is my guess as to what is going on.
In a multiple choice question, teenagers were asked why electric wires are made from copper. The four possible answers were that copper was brown, was not magnetic, conducted electricity, or that it conducted heat.
This question can of course be answered without knowing anything at all about either electricity or copper.
Business organizations have to gain more resources than they use (make money), so they develop measures of production and efficiency to guide them. If they don't make money, they must find more effective measures. Making money is a hard fact that cannot be faked or explained away. Not for long, anyway.
Schools administered by government are a bureaucracy. Bureaucracies don't make money, so they are free to develop measures of productivity that show success, and also redefine their operations to create success.
Such schools started by testing for knowledge, which gives disappointing results.
They later discovered that the test results could be "renormalized to a curve", which standardizes the results to show 70% success in all courses. This is the practice of giving some percentage of the class A's, some percentage B's, and so on. This is explained as merely adjusting for the different abilities of the teachers. No matter how bad the subject matter or the teacher, the measure shows good results, because some percentage of the class gets A's and B's, by design. Educational failure is distributed silently to the students, and little effort goes into follow-up studies that would reveal the failures.
Unfortunately, even grading to the curve is disappointing. It is hard to explain why students get an "A" for answering 60% of the multiple choice questions correctly, or a "C" for answering 30%.
Now, in the later stages, government schools realize that it is easier to show success if you construct easier questions. The students aren't benefitting from the classes anyway, and the smart kids will learn on their own what they need to, so why make the questions hard? The schools redesign the classes to be about social relations, which everyone understands, and they design the tests to guide students to the correct answers. Grading on the curve gives the same results, 70% success, but at least an "A" can be set at answering 85% correctly.
The school is saying, in effect, Who cares about why copper carries electricity the best? When you go to buy the wire, it is made of copper. There is really no need to understand how the world works, just accept it the way that it is handed to you.
Question: Why are the rules the way that they are? Answer: Because those are the rules, and that is easy to remember.