Bell Curve – The Shape of a Lie

To be more competitive globally – in an authentic way – our public education system must abandon the illusion of competitiveness based on academic comparisons among students and their peers. Competition in schools is great when it comes to the debate team, the spelling bee, the soccer field, the jazz band finals … Athletes and mathletes alike should enjoy activities and venues for demonstrating their exceptional skills (and for receiving recognition for their specific superiority).

When it comes to the classroom, however, our goal is to help all students to meet state and national (or even international) standards in academic content and skills. And to do that, we have to let go of our desire to rank, sort, classify, and line students up from best to worst, using peers as benchmarks.

True standards-based education in a competitive, capitalist society is a very uncomfortable concept, when you think about it:  A hockey dad learns that his daughter (the center on the school team) meets a standard in Geometry.  By how much did she meet it?  Who met that standard a little bit less than she did? Would that be considered an “A+”?  Or would it be a “D-” because she dragged her achievement across that line between not meeting the standard (an “F”?) and barely making it (a “D”?)???  What do you mean someone else “exceeded” that standard?  By how much??  Who gets to be on the Honor Roll?  How do we find the Valedictorian? Who will salute her? 

We crave that bell curve – a nice normal statistical distribution that lets the world know that some people are great, most are average, and some just don’t measure up.  A mother might reasonably feel that her son’s “A” in English Literature only means something because other kids earned B’s and C’s – or lower. Cognitively, we want everyone to achieve the standards – but viscerally, we want to know who’s the best.

Even after decades of school reform aimed at embracing a standards-based approach, many educators and administrators (and MOST community stakeholders, families, parents…) are unable to relinquish that white-knuckled grip on the idea of measuring students against each other rather than against the learning standards.  Most schools go so far as to explore and experiment with changes to curriculum and instruction to support standards-based learning (usually taking a diluted form involving “standards-referenced” practices), and then abandon ship entirely when it comes to exploring standards-based assessment and reporting.

“Standardized testing” is an insidious term that creates abundant confusion here – the root word, “standard”, does not refer to “learning standards” at all.  The “standard” in “standardized” simply means that the assessment is implemented in a consistent way (same or similar questions, same format, same testing conditions, same time limits, etc).  There is no reason to standardize an assessment if the goal is to measure student achievement of the learning standards!  Certainly, many “standardized” tests are also criterion-based (meaning that the tests measure the degree to which a student demonstrated knowledge/skill in specific learning standards); however, the only conceivable reason for “standardizing” a test at all is to ensure a norm-referenced comparison among test takers (in order to score student against student, in accordance with The Curve, the results of which guarantee that comfortable illusion of some high achievers, some low achievers, and a whole lot of mediocrity in between).

The entire distribution curve itself is, of course, completely relative.  When nobody “meets the standards” on an assessment, the curve simply slides down until there are excellent scorers who don’t meet the standards and average scorers who are well below the standards.  And if everyone meets the standards … well … that would squish the bell flat.  There would be no hierarchy, no Top Ten, no Honor Roll… Imagine.

People do not demonstrate their knowledge, skills, expertise in standardized ways in this world.  We synthesize, modify, extend and express ourselves uniquely; we move at varying paces with inconsistent enthusiasm and aptitude under the very non-standard, organic, fluid conditions of “real life”.  True standards-based assessments will take into account the multiple pathways through which students can gain knowledge and skills, and the multiple formats by which they can demonstrate their achievement.

Our purpose is not served in the ranking and sorting of students; we are less competent (and less competitive) when we placate ourselves with the comfortable, familiar bell curve illusion.  All of our students need to meet the content-based and skills-based standards we’re serving up in our public schools – and this requires us to knock it off with the competition already when it comes to learning, because everyone has to win.

6 responses

  1. Renee DeCamillis | Reply

    I completely agree. I have always had an issue with standardized testing and competition. I don’t feel that standardized tests are a fair way of determining what students have absorbed from their learning. As you said, everyone is unique; therefore, not all will display their intelligence in the same ways, nor will they all learn the same way. As for competition, I’ve always felt that it is only necessary to compete with one’s self, not with others. Competition with others can be a very ugly thing, and creates very ugly traits within many of the competitors.

  2. Thank you so much Pender for taking the time to write this valuable blog post on a subject that educators are grappling with and that is so important!

    1. Thank you for the inspiration, Argy! Love your blog – and it’s snowing on there! XO

  3. Recently, a grade level team of teachers realized that the written benchmarks (standards) used with common assessments were not accurately portraying what should be expected of students. They met deliberated, drafted and are piloting new benchmarks. The majority of these assessments are criterion referenced. However, one of the team’s purposes was to create a true bell curve of students’ performance. These are quality educators but their mindset must shift just like the policy makers, administrators, students and parents. Internally, we were able to realize what the “real” purpose of revising the benchmarks were: to reflect the true expectations of our students against the established curricular standards. Until we, educators, stop keeping score like learning is a football game with a winner and a loser, Education in the US won’t be able to become learner-centered, standards-based experience. We will continue to have pockets of classrooms where the teacher has stopped keeping score and figured out how to keep it quiet while expecting students to meet the standards.

  4. My 15 daughter is a classic example of what can go wrong with standardized testing. She simply does NOT do well with the pressure of such an assessment. She sat down with the teacher one day to review a classroom exam she had failed. When he asked her the same questions and she was able to respond orally, she blew him away with what she knew.
    We MUST finds ways to honor the multiple intelligences of our students and allow them to show progress towards – and mastery of – in multiple ways. It should not be done just for the convenience of the teacher, school,district or state.

  5. Well said! Interestingly, I just had a conversation with a parent earlier tonight during his child’s parent/teacher conference. He (the dad) is well aware that his son is a “top performing student”, or has been in the past. My comment to him, when addressing this new shift in standards-based learning, was something to this effect…. “Won’t it be nice when we are measuring your son’s progress and potential against what HE is capable of achieving and not what his peers may or may not be? He smiled and said, “Good point.”

    The best part of that conversation was FINALLY be able to articulate what lots of educators have known for a very long time. It feels good to have backing at the local, state, and national level. Once we all begin to articulate this shift in philosophy with confidence, we may begin to shift the mindset of parents, who know nothing different and will never realize the potential of standards-based instruction unless WE take the time to educate them also.

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