We need more science

So I’ve been watching the Olympics, as I gather most people are doing. I’m not a huge fan, although it’s hard not to get caught up in the excitement. I mean, the swimmers are breaking a world record every few hours, and there’s apparently a ton of drama in the women’s gymnastics (because, I think, all the athletes are 12 years old, and you know how girls are at that age). But I was reading this article and thinking that, not only does the media ignore some pretty easy science in the relative radioactivity of granite countertops, as mentioned there, but also that a few numbers could really make the Olympics more interesting to me. First, swimming. We keep breaking records. It would be nice to know how long a record stood, how much it was broken by, and things like that. We even had a swimmer break the split record and they not only didn’t mention his time, but they didn’t mention the time he had beaten. How hard is it to flash a number on the screen? Maybe instead of 37 shots of Michael Phelps screaming, we could have gotten some background on the numbers. And then the gymnastics. They’ve changed the scoring system so that you get a score based on difficulty, which they seem to know before anything happens, and then a score based on performance/accuracy/whatever. Why in the world can’t I know what the difficulty score is going to be while it’s happening? If it’s going to be a really tough routine, that would make it more interesting. Or I could at least compare something that’s rated 6.5 with something that’s 5.5 and see how much harder one appears to be than the other. They don’t even tell you what the score range is. I assume the accuracy score is out of 10, because most people were between 8.5 and 9.5. But I don’t really know. Is there some reason they can’t show these numbers? The commentators frequently ramble on about absolutely nothing. Maybe instead they could talk about the science behind why the swimmers break records every race this year. Apparently wider, deeper pools, combined with better suit technology and new stroke rules are all combining to make the swimmers faster. But I haven’t heard anyone on tv talk about that. The American public is not afraid of science and numbers. And some of us actually find that they enhance the experience. So can we maybe get some? It’s not that hard. On a sort-of-related note, congratulations to the blogger linked above – his wife just had their first baby last week.

Make sure you find the real problem

Test Scores at Odds With Rising High School Grades – washingtonpost.com

The mismatch between stronger transcripts and weak test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, often called the nation’s report card, resonated in the Washington area and elsewhere. Some seized upon the findings as evidence of grade inflation and the dumbing-down of courses. The findings also prompted renewed calls for tough national standards and the expansion of the federal No Child Left Behind law.

Since I don’t teach in area high schools, and don’t have children or even know any children in area high schools, I can’t comment on this from direct experience.  But it worries me that nowhere in this article does it suggest that the problem might be the tests.  I’m not saying that I don’t think there is grade inflation and course-title inflation.  I’m sure there is.  But the article takes it as accepted fact that the tests are infallible – that a good test score means a student who is well-prepared for the real world.

Anyone closely involved with area high schools can probably tell you that isn’t true.  Certianly it is more likely that a student with high scores will do well in the real world, but I can’t believe that it’s an absolutely accurate predictor of success.

I think the danger here is that we take things as fact when they are anything but.  If you make very logical and informed decisions based on flawed assumptions, your decisions are probably going to be wrong.

Maybe we should be looking at students who took these tests five years ago and looking at what a high test score meant.  Were those students more likely to be successful in college?  More likely to get a good job?  What were we doing differently back when scores were higher?  Were those students better or worse off?  There are a million questions to answer, and seeing low test scores and immediately assuming that the teachers are failing is a disservice to everyone.