Sunday, May 16, 2010

Batting Averages and Student Assessment

I was having a conversation recently with a university administrator, and the subject of standardized testing came up.  As someone who teaches, or at least attempts to teach, chemistry students who are the products of our current No Child Left Behind educational environment, I was struck with a sudden realization.  The students that arrive in my classroom seem woefully unprepared to apply any knowledge from their tenure in the K-12 system, and this lack of preparation is in no way evidenced by their standardized test scores or college entrance exams (ACT in the case of my institution).  Also, we as college educators often want  students who come pre-loaded with amazing abilities, but this is an unreasonable expectation for K-12 to meet if the primary goal is to pass standardized assessments for funding to keep the doors of their institutions open.

If part of the problem with the current system is teachers being forced to "teach the standardized tests", who determines the content for these assessments?  Now, please don't take this question as a denouncement of all standardized tests.  I think most of the time these tests provide a measure of raw talent, a useful piece of information, however, these exams provide little if any measure of subject-specific application.  Additionally, students have no way of determining the scope of their talents or their limitations within specific subjects.

My solution to this problem is to develop an index, call it the Applied Subject Knowledge Index (A.S.K. Index, gimmicky, huh?).  This assessment consists of content-specific questions that range from the lowest level literacy to the most advanced critical thinking exercise that a student might encounter within the first two years of college study and is to be given during a student's last year of high school or period prior to applying for college.  Content areas are separated into blocks, Biology/Biotechnology, Chemistry/Biochemistry, Languages/Literature/Technical Writing, Physics, Mathematics/Statistics.  The questions in each content are submitted by two different stakeholders.  Private-sector interests (corporations, companies, etc.) submit questions that test a student's knowledge area regarding skills they look for in a potential employee.  Public-sector interests like academia and government agencies balance the fads that sometimes occur in the private sector by focusing on the core competencies needed to survive in their own communities.  The development of this assessment must also be transparent to both stakeholders as well as the K-12 educational community at large in terms of slightly broad areas of content application rather than overly specific topics that might lead school districts to "teach the test".  Secondly, freedom should be given to school districts to assess their own student populations with variations of this index in order to determine adjustments that might be required to their curriculum, provided the results of these assessments are shared with state/federal agencies.

So, what does this hypothetical index have to do with batting averages?  Simple, in the majors a player that can bat .300 or better is considered to be a solid asset to his team.  This means said player is considered a pretty good batter if he hits the ball only 30% of the time.  In other words, he is expected to fail at the task of batting nearly 70% of the time since the task he is undertaking is so difficult.  This spectacular failure rate is exactly what I propose as the expectation of the ASK index, a difficulty so great as to test the limits of any student.  In this way students are not expected to be "geniuses" but are encouraged to be honest about what they know or don't know about a given subject.  Extremely talented students obtain a measure of their actual understanding as well as a goal to push themselves.  Average students also receive information about their talents as well as an advising tool to help them determine a career path.

Colleges/universities also receive a much more detailed assessment of a potential recruit.  Students scoring an overall 25-30% should be considered as solid assets to a college institution, and high performance in specific content areas should be used to advise a student on career options.  Students that score lower on the index should be encouraged to take a more developmental route through community colleges for one year before attempting the ASK exam again.  Scores for each attempt of the exam should be retained as a measure of a student's intellectual evolution (also a great measure of growing maturity/work ethic) and as a means of providing detailed feedback to the student as to their talents/shortcomings.

Private sector interests should also find this index useful in providing feedback to the workforce as to which skills are strong and which areas need improvement.  In this way industry can be more confident about the intellectual talent that is available in our country.

I realize that I am proposing yet another assessment to what seems to be an ever-growing number of tests, exams, etc.  However, if the current system is to be changed, a concerted, transparent effort between the higher education enterprise and the industries receiving the graduates is desperately needed.  Otherwise, our nation is going to continue this ludicrous cycle of blaming K-12 educators as incompetent for not achieving standards that are never clearly set or students for being "lazy", disengaged brats, both labels that only serve to make education out to be a hopeless endeavor. 

Friday, May 7, 2010

They don't even realize where they might need chemistry...

I remember reading an article about a new discovery from GA Tech that involves the use of magnetic nanoparticles to slow the transport of free cancer cells throught the body, thereby limiting the metastatic growth of some cancers. This technique involves the selective attachment of nanometer-scale magnetic particles to the free-floating cancerous cells (in this study ovarian cancer was of interest), and literally moving them around with another, larger magnet. The magnetized cancer cells can then be moved to another area of the body for physical extraction.

I read about this stunningly simple, yet elegant approach, and all of a sudden I am hit with just how crucial a basic chemistry/physics education will be for the present generation of undergraduates.

Monday, May 3, 2010

New tech tools and a renewed purpose

If you can't tell already, student engagement in my classroom is probably my greatest hurdle as an educator. I have resolved to change this by drawing a line in the sand.

Step 1

I have decided to get away from the traditional Power Point presentation that I have been inflicting on my students in Chemistry 1. I am going to give a visual approach a try through an application called mind42. Here's my first published mind map. I want to actually use this resource to assist my students in making connections between concepts as well as to turn their informal study into an active learning experience.

More steps to come...