Another Education Analogy

Weight is one of the most important indicators of human health. My health care provider requires a weight test to be sure members pass the health test. Let’s use a patient that weighs 1,000 pounds to see how the numbers on the test might not be what they seem (BTW – this is more than 400 pounds less than the heaviest person on record).

This 1,000 pound man is so unhealthy he can’t get out of bed, do anything on his own or pass the health test (he scores in the lowest 1 percent of people his age). So the health care provider requires that a health team develop a plan to improve the man’s health (don’t we wish that was true?). The team consists of the patient, his family, a doctor, a nutritionist and a psychologist.

The team develops a plan, and after a year the man has lost 100 pounds. The family is pleased, but when the health test is administered again, he still scores in the lowest 1 percent for health (after-all he still weighs 900 pounds). The team receives a letter from the insurance company admonishing them at making no progress on the test and reminding them that they must make adequate yearly progress in health achievement.

The team develops a new plan they hope will achieve health for the patient. At the end of the next year, the man has lost an amazing 200 pounds! The family has noted the progress throughout the year and is ecstatic at the improvement. But he still weighs 700 pounds, so when the health test is administered, he still scores at the lowest 1 percent… no progress at all.

A new nutritionist replaces the fired one and the team re-visits the plan again. At the end of the third year another 200 pounds has been lost, and at 500 pounds the man is able, with much assistance and scaffolding, to walk down the hall and back for the first time in six years. The man and several members of his family weep with joy at this accomplishment. But his health test score hasn’t changed a bit. At 500 pounds, he is still in the bottom 1 percent for health. He just isn’t improving at all.

The insurance company fires the entire health team since they have made no progress with the patient and brings in a new team that includes a physical therapist. At the end of the next year, the man has only lost an additional 10 pounds. It turns out the man’s family snuck him unhealthy and extra food and signed reports that he was doing his physical therapy when he was not. With so little progress in weight loss, the man fails his health test for the fourth year in a row (he still weighs 490 pounds).

No team members are fired since the family sabotaged the plan, but they manage to re-tweak the plan yet again. At the end of the fifth year the man has lost an additional 80 pounds. He can get out of bed on his own now to take short walks, use the bathroom himself and even eat some meals with the family. But at 410 pounds he still scores at the lowest 1 percent for health on the health test. After five years and thousands and thousands of dollars, the man has made no progress on the health test. This is the sorry state of a medical profession that leaves us waiting for… Waiting For … (well you get it).

I originally wrote a version of this 10 years ago when all the testing done in my school district (and most others) was mostly the worst kind of “standardized” testing. The testing has improved very slightly, but still is used to jump to poor conclusions like the ones reached above. I post it here not to say that no testing should be done in our schools to note progress and quality of schools and teaching. But to make the point that we too often oversimplify important, complex issues in education and rely on testing in ways it wasn’t designed to be used by people that don’t really understand that.

Let’s get the best, accurate assessments that can be used not only to rate how we are doing, but help us improve learning BEFORE we use them too much to rate how education is doing. I wonder too if the education we will achieve by teaching to the current poorly designed tests is really the education we want or need? Just a thought.

Learning is messy!

Cross posted at Huffington Post as: Another Health Care and Education Discussion

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12 Responses to Another Education Analogy

  1. Cole says:

    I am a student at The University of South Alabama and I am in Dr. Strange’s class. I would like to start off by saying that this is a great analogy of the current state of standardized testing in the United States. Not only are the test not regionalized but they are also racists in some aspects and discriminate towards certain ethinic groups in others. Instead of using these test to determine the level of achievement of a student based on the results of an entire nation, we should somehow find a way to test the student on the progress that he/she has made compared to what he/she tested at earlier in the year. At this moment we do not consider this a “real” comparison because “all students should be on proficient level.” We all know though, that all students should not be graded the same, taught the same, or defined as the same. Maybe we can start moving ahead in the future. This was a great post, thank you for sharing it.

  2. David Brown says:

    In Australia the standardised testing that was introduced is having more and more power of how and what teachers teach. With the results being displayed publicly on the internet and talk of the results possibly effecting teacher salary, it’s no wonder there are rumors of teachers giving way more help than they should to students and even giving them some of the answers.

  3. Gretchen says:

    I agree that this is a great analogy! The sad part of this story was that all of the progress and success the overweight man was making went unnoticed by the insurance company. As teachers, parents, schools, districts, etc. we should be celebrating the strides that our students are making, no matter how small! If we disregard these victories, what are we message are we sending our students? If you don’t pass the state assessment you are worthless? With so much focus on testing, especially with teachers’ salaries linked to performance, we can’t lose sight of our purpose: helping students learn.

  4. Very well written. I think a big part of the picture is schools not having enough money. The Government needs to step back in, and give schools the money they need. This way they have a much better chance of giving our kids the best education possible.
    Kind regards.

  5. Sam says:

    Hi Brian,
    I am a K-8 education student. I really appreciated reading this analogy. Many of my peers and I dread the day we will have to teach to and administer the TEST. Until recently, I never understood the big deal about testing. I took the tests almost every year at the private schools I went to. Now as I have read for our program, taken the teacher assessments, and talked with my colleagues I realize how little these TESTs assess. As one person wrote (don’t remember the article), one of the greatest predictors of TEST performance is socioeconomic status. Or as an old WWII veteran told me, “I was a good test taker.” So this whole argument has been going on since before the armed forces started testing recruits and draftees to track them into their fields of expertise. Thankfully, our teacher cert program emphasizes teaching real thinking skills and then seeing how the standards or the TEST fits into the meat of real education. Any advice for an up and coming teacher? - Sam

    (In case you wondered, my WWII friend didn’t want to become an engineer and intentionally flunked out of the college program the army put him in. He ended up serving as a supply person bringing ammo and such to the front lines. After the war he bought a farm. Then he went to school and became a teacher. Wow did he have some great stories!)

  6. A brilliant analogy! I am currently finishing my Tertiary Teaching Cert in Australia, and having taught at higher ed. and gone through as an undergrad, I totally agree. It is bizarre that so often the emphasis is not on learning development, when this aid us to reach national as well as personal goals. It’s like so many of the decision makers just want us all to tread water without going anywhere~ pointless.

  7. Pingback: PSI Tutor:Mentor » Blog Archive » Weighing in on Standardized Tests

  8. SC says:

    Great analogy above to describe our current situation on high stakes testing and its short-comings. I am a student teacher and it seems evident in our program that using tests as a sole measure to see how students are doing is not and should not be the only way to go. Many parents and our community do not know the analogy that you just described above, and this needs to change. So, this what a new teacher has to face and and speak change to. How do we do this? Where do we go from here? How do we gather the views of our professional educators to help our educational system? I agree the simplicity in testing false short in addressing a complex problem.

  9. Joe says:

    I think the point that hits home to me is that we have forgotten that the patient was a human being. Instead of looking at him, we are looking at numbers. If we were in a business where we were selling a product, this would be all right. But we are in a business where we are dealing with people. And each person is a unique human being. I am a former math teacher. I think stats are great! But they can only be used to support the real growth – the one that can not be tested! The one where we look at the individual to see if there is any progress.

  10. Penney says:

    A sad, but true analogy. While I was reading I couldn’t stop thinking about the 1% and how someone, somewhere has decided what weight is considered 2%. And the only factor that is considered when moving from 1% to 2% is the man’s weight. Not his overall health or percentage of body fat. We see this every day with standardize tests. A student either passes or fails. The scores don’t show how hard the student has been working, or the huge improvement he or she has made or the family who is either supportive or not supportive of education. We need to stop seeing people as percentages and scores and view them as the unique individuals that they are.

  11. Tessa Heyer says:

    Good analogy. Unfortunately students are treated like that of the patient. Time and time again teachers are making incredible improvements in the education of multiple students, yet if the scores are not “what is required” to make AYP the teachers are held accountable. State officials do jump to poor conclusions about a single test score without looking at the overall picture. Because of these issues I have not been a big fan of standardized testing. Students need to be assessed, but there education and the educators working with them should not be focused on raising one score rather than preparing the students for a life time of responsible decision making and useful information.
    As Joe mentioned earlier, the patient is human…as are the students and teacher; something that seems to have been forgotten.

  12. Ms. B says:

    Wow – there is nothing like an analogy to help clarify a complex picture. Thank you. As a student teacher in a program that focuses on social justice I have studied a few strengths and a considerable number of weaknesses of America’s myopic grip on standardized testing and curriculum. I am coming to the realization that frequent, dynamic, reflective assessment gives each student their personal growth chart, and perhaps grows their portfolio, while giving the teachers information about their teaching. It helps us refine our work with each student; helps us learn where we need to work to help students grow their thinking and understanding. Standardized testing does so little to help us help students reach their full potential, and costs so much energy, money and time. How can we change the paradigm?

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