Standardized tests do not account for individual differences

Standardized tests measure pre-determined learning outcomes using the same test for all learners at the same age and grade levels, in spite of the fact that we all know no two people are alike in their patterns of growth or in their experiences. Scores on these tests have high-stakes consequences that can increase the budget for those learners designated below grade level and determine the successes or failures of students, teachers and schools.

Logic and logical analysis are very important intellectual capabilities that develop along an invariant sequence for all individuals, shaped by genetics. These capabilities are needed to successfully and meaningfully solve problems and answer test questions that require reasoning – like predicting events or making connections between ideas, events, facts, principles, etc. These capabilities will develop and mature over time, but they just do not exist in younger children and even in some older children who have not yet reached that level of development.

There are four phases of intellectual development through which every youngster passes on the way to a level of maturity that features an ability to think logically about hypothetical matters. Jean Piaget identified these phases through his research, verified many times over as having credible value in determining the readiness of each learner to do specific intellectual tasks. Refer to Almy, M.C. (1979) “The impact of Piagetian theory on education, philosophy, psychiatry, and psychology,” Baltimore: University Park Press.

The first phase of intellectual growth in Piaget’s theory is called sensory-motor development. This phase is followed by pre-operational or pre-logical intellectual operations. The next phase is called concrete operations or logical thinking that is based on concrete experiences. The highest level is called formal operations featuring an ability to deal logically in hypothetical situations.

Age and grade levels have very little if anything to do with an individual’s readiness for learning. Readiness is related to the phases of intellectual growth occurring more quickly in some and taking longer in others, as every parent knows.

A learner’s biological development, like growing taller and sprouting teeth, also includes the development of intellectual capabilities. We wouldn’t think of trying to hurry along the loss of baby teeth or reaching puberty knowing these events are due to biological development. Yet, there are those who think that every six year old can demonstrate mastery of sophisticated mathematical concepts; they just need instruction.

To make concrete an understanding of the levels of logical development here is one example drawn from Piaget’s many “conservation experiments.” Any parent or teacher can administer them. Picture this.

Two identical beakers of water are presented to a child who is asked to observe if there is the same amount of water in each. Adjustments are made until there is an agreement that each indeed contains the same amount of water. Then the water in one beaker is poured into a taller, skinnier beaker. The level of the water now appears much higher in the taller beaker.

The subject is then asked: “What about now? Is there the same amount of water in the original beaker and the skinnier one, or has the amount changed?”

The sensory-motor youngsters will not engage the experiment. They will have better things to do.

The pre-operational youngsters will insist there is more water in the taller beaker, even though they just agreed a few moments before that the amounts of water were the same. Their judgments are based on perception or how it appears to them.

The concrete operational youngsters will say: “As long as no water was lost, the amounts remain the same regardless of how they appear.” Their judgments are based on concepts and simple logic – if there are equal amounts to begin with and nothing is lost in the process of pouring the liquid into the taller beaker, then the amounts have to be the same no matter how they appear.

These youngsters are basing their judgments on logic that proves a truth that is dependent upon concrete evidence from direct experience. These youngsters are presumed to be able to “conserve” in the mind a concept of equal amounts of water while the change in form takes place and then apply that concept in solving the problem. This is a logical process.

The formal operational youngsters will look at the seemingly empty beaker and observe a droplet of water in the bottom and claim there is not the same amount of water in the remaining beaker and the taller beaker because there is still a droplet left in the so-called empty beaker.

These individuals are basing their judgments on a more sophisticated logic that simultaneously entertains many more variables than was possible at the concrete operations level. In fact, these youngsters could undoubtedly solve the problem logically without the props and manipulate various thoughts abstractly, mediated with language and gestures. They can deal with the hypothetical.

What happens when youngsters at each of these phases of development are confronted with test questions that require logic? Most 5-, 6- and 7-year-olds are pre-operational or pre-logical. They can only guess at an answer. Eight-, 9- and 10-year-olds are generally concrete operational or logical about things they have directly encountered, and they will answer correctly if the question is within their direct experience. If the questions ask for hypothetical deduction, they will fail unless they are able to guess correctly. The formal operational youngsters, generally teenagers, will be capable of logic and hypothetical deduction but if they have not experienced the secretive subject matter they too will be forced to guess.

What is the upshot? Standardized tests do not acknowledge differences in intellectual development. The advocates of standardization have established a self-fulfilling prophesy that many youngsters will fail the new tests. However, this is probably not because they are taught poorly but because most are developmentally not ready for constructing logical solutions. No amount of coercion or instruction will produce the capabilities for logic; this intellectual capability must develop naturally.

Robert L. Arnold lives in Willsboro and is an professor emeritus of education at SUNY Plattsburgh.