For some reason not clear to scientists and educators, students do not seem to get accidental high scores on examinations.
Students don't file into my office at Snow College to complain that the test was not fair because their score is too high or that they aced an exam for which they thought they were unprepared.On the other hand, students often judge a test unfair because of an accidental low score. They claim to have studied X when the teacher tested for Y. "I didn't think she would ask that on the exam. I didn't know that the exam was to be comprehensive."
What the student is saying is that he or she studied the wrong thing for the test. Perhaps the possibility also exists that the student didn't study at all.
Of course anything can happen during the stressful testing time to cause a low score. There are distractions like humming lights in the room, noise in the hall, announcements on a public address system, and a student sitting beside you who doesn't know the answers either. People in the room can be doing distracting things like coughing, sneezing, crying or even praying. The class clown may suddenly light his hair on fire and run naked through the room. Anything can cause an accidental low score.
Perhaps we need to put tests in context with the help of an analogy. Often on a Sunday afternoon the kids in my house will bake treats. Cookies are the usual project. I have developed a quick hand as a cookie dough sampler despite the objections of the kids and the echoing warning of my mother that raw dough will give me worms. I am not even a little sample snitch, but have developed a two-finger dip that goes well with chocolate chip cookie dough.
One afternoon my quick theft of a sample about cured my bad habit. The stuff tasted like shortening with a couple chips dipped in raw egg white. "This won't be good," I tried to tell the young cooks. I think I even used a word reserved for the younger generation and pronounced the mixture "gross."
"You got a bad sample Dad. It isn't mixed up yet." This is also the answer to the testing question. Sometimes the teacher gets a bad sample. Sometimes the sample doesn't represent the real thing. A test of what has been learned can only be a sample.
For example, each year about 65 percent of the high school graduates in Utah consent to give colleges, universities and other educators a sample of what they have learned in their school years. This sample, the American College Assessment (ACT) is only one of many samples of what is learned that students give each year, with results often being carefully recorded on a permanent school record. In the case of the ACT, students are asked for about a 3-hour sample of what they have accumulated in 18 years.
The question is whether the sample is fair. There is no doubt that most scientifically designed assessments are fair for the group. These tests do accurately represent what students nationally have learned in school. A national group of teachers and curriculum experts assure a fair national sample of the subject matter.
The difficult questions need to be asked by students, parents and educational institutions about each individual score recorded on some individual student record. Was the sample taken from the student without distractions and in a standard manner so that each student had a fair chance to give an accurate sample? Was the sample fair enough to warrant cautious generalizations by educators that will improve the student's educational experience?
We have made generalizations about the moon based on observations of one side, pictures of the back side, visits by only a few people and a very small sample of moon rocks. Should not generalizations about individual students based on a small sample of what they know be as cautiously made as generalizations about the moon?