Stats Made Easy

Practical Tools for Effective Experimentation

Monday, May 19, 2008

What would Deming say about the demise of testing in education?

Earlier this month I was listening to a local talk radio show when a caller provided this “end of the world” development: To be more kindly and gentle to students stressed out by math tests, teachers now refer to these as “celebrations of knowledge”!

At the time I heard of this outrageous slackening of educational standards, I was in the midst of reading a book that my buddy Rich sent me that’s titled “The World of W. Edwards Deming.” (If you are a bibliophile like me, check out his eclectic mix of uncommon books offered for sale via Ebay). My entry into the world of quality assurance was catalyzed by the electrifying documentary “If Japan can... Why can't we?” by NBC in 1980 featuring Deming and his use of statistical methods.

One of my favorite stories in the book on Deming, which was written by his long-time personal assistant Cecelia S. Kilian, involves another pioneer in the field of statistics, a fellow named Harold Dodge. Deming worked with Dodge during WWII to develop statistical standards on a wartime emergency basis. Over a decade before that, Deming had an internship with Bell Telephone Laboratories – Dodge’s employer. During these times the statisticians working under Dodge played a neat trick on him as he tried to get a feeling for the cord length on a newly-developed handset: They clipped off millimeter or two every day. Deming recalls seeing Dodge stoop to an astoundingly uncomfortable level to take a phone call. Evidently it’s not hard to fool an absent-minded statistical genius!

Getting back to Deming’s views on education, I really do wonder how he would feel about the practice of testing as an incentive for students to develop a profound knowledge of their subject. In his book “Out of the Crisis” (1982, MIT) he said “I have seen a teacher hold a hundred fifty students spellbound, teaching what is wrong.” He credits Sir Ronald Fisher as his inspiration for learning statistics, despite being a “poor teacher on every count”! Deming made no secret of his dislike for grading, rating, and testing in industrial settings. Therefore I suppose he would approve of the new, more positive approach of celebrating knowledge, rather than making students take final exams.

“When teachers are forced to teach to the test, students get bored and genuine education ceases, no matter what the test scores may say… The examination as a test of the past is of no value for increased learning ability. Like all external motivators, it can produce a short term effect, but examinations for the purpose of grading the past do not hook a student on learning for life.”
-- Myron Tribus (from his essay Quality in Education According to the Teachings of Deming and Feuerstein )


  • At 2:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    I am very confident he would approve of eliminating grades. That doesn't mean he would see any educational system that had eliminating grades as good. You could surely eliminate grade and have a very bad educational system. But he did not believe grades were a useful tool.


Post a Comment

<< Home