"And All the Pundits Are Below Average"

In January, Thomas Friedman wrote:

In the past, workers with average skills, doing an average job, could earn an average lifestyle. But, today, average is officially over. Being average just won’t earn you what it used to. It can’t when so many more employers have so much more access to so much more above average cheap foreign labor, cheap robotics, cheap software, cheap automation and cheap genius. Therefore, everyone needs to find their extra — their unique value contribution that makes them stand out in whatever is their field of employment. Average is over.

 Today, he followed up:

Yes, this is a simplification, but the trend is accurate. The trend is that for more and more jobs, average is over. Thanks to the merger of, and advances in, globalization and the information technology revolution, every boss now has cheaper, easier access to more above-average software, automation, robotics, cheap labor and cheap genius than ever before. So just doing a job in an average way will not return an average lifestyle any longer.

How does he justify this? Through test scores. What do test scores rely on? Averages.

Friedman, of course, is displaying a little slight-of-hand in his use of the word “average.” He is conflating a statistical term with the common ‘good enough.’  It leads him to gobbledygook like the above, where he says average is over but also talks about above-average software, which can’t exist, of course, without average software. If the above-average is cheap and easy, the average disappears and the above-average becomes average. So what is he talking about?

What he is talking about is testing and comparative results. He is ‘concerned’ that Americans aren’t testing as well on standardized international assessments as some other countries. We are, he finds, below average.

A little ironic–if average is over.

What he doesn’t understand is that tests, and averages, don’t provide any real indication of a school or schooling. In fact, they do little more than tell how well the test-takers have done on that particular test on that particular day. Their correlation to anything else is meager, at best. I once watched the second of two IQ tests given to an eight-year-old. On the first, he scored below 90, which would have put him into a ‘special’ classroom (this was over thirty years ago). On the second, when the tester kept a pile of nickels that grew with each correct answer at her side where the child could see it, his score came up almost to 100. Which is the ‘real’ score, and why?

Yesterday, a student came in for advisement. She has a stellar GPA but had failed a placement test for an extremely competitive program. I asked her what had happened. She told me that, seeing that time was running out, she simply filled in answer bubbles at random, to get something down for each question remaining. I explained to her how this was not good test-taking strategy, especially if the grading took into account (as many do) the chance factor. If so, she might have done better to leave all of the remaining questions blank (again, depending on the scoring strategy). This excellent student failed the placement test, I am certain, simply because she is not skilled in test-taking.

Friedman quotes Andreas Schleicher of the Program for International Student Assessment:

“Imagine, in a few years, you could sign onto a Web site and see this is how my school compares with a similar school anywhere in the world,” says Schleicher. “And then you take this information to your local superintendent and ask: ‘Why are we not doing as well as schools in China or Finland?’ ”

This is a scary thought: who is to say if this “information” has any value? Because there are test results doesn’t mean those results mean anything.  The person taking this information to a superintendent has no idea (or likely has no idea) just what that information represents. Schleicher, and the other proponents of standardized testing, imply that they know what education is–and can measure it. And the rest of us should just take their word for it.

Personally, I don’t trust numbers-crunchers to evaluate education. All they are looking at is averages.

And, as Friedman says, average is over.

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