Tyranny of numbers

Testing regimes and productivity

Posted in Education by Djavad on May 17, 2009

There is a large literature on the effect of testing on learning, but as far as I know very little of it has been applied to Iran’s concour.  How we evaluate students has obvious effects on the students’ incentives to learn and teacher’s incentives to teach.  In market economies where employers have a voice in what is worth learning and what is not, because they have to pay for it when they hire workers, the effect of testing on incentives is not paramount.  Teachers may teach to the test, but parents and students know what is important to learn for later life– holding a job with good pay and getting promoted.  Not so in Iran.

When employers play a strong role in motivating learning, everything that matters for production comes into play, even play itself.   Sport, arts, and play are well known to contribute to individual growth in ways that make people more productive.  I think this is a reason for the phenomenal support of parents for sports for small children in the US (“soccer moms”).  Parents in the US (where I have done my parenting) realize that there is not one test that matters for their child’s future, but thousands.  So spending a lot of time and resources in preparing for the  SAT exams (the US equivalent of Iran’s concour) is not very productive.  Even the test taking skills are not very worthwhile to learn.  Most of the thousands of tests that I am referring to here are administered not by machines but by people, many of them employers who could not care less what a person has memorized.

US universities, where 50% of American high school graduates are headed, reinforce this system by not relying too much on test scores in their admission decisions.  It may involve subjective (not the same as arbitrary) factors into the admission decision, but they think it is better than the alternative.   Who are they? I think they are parents, schools and employers.  The system is part of the US social contract.  Universities spend lots of resources on the admission departments and try hard to keep nepotism down.

In Iran fear of nepotism (parti bazi) prevents people from seriously considering reducing the role of computer generated scores and increasing the weight of non-testable skills and personality traits in selection into universities.  Employers do not have much to say about this at present.  Public employers have to follow rules set by Iran’s Civil Service Employment Code and private employers, the larger ones, the rules set in the Labor Law of 1990.  Both sets of rules discourage (sometimes prevent) employers from taking a chance on good character in place of degrees, test scores, and rank in the concour.

Can Iran move away from this system and in the direction of the system in the US and other advanced economies? Some deep and perhaps touchy questions arise.  Can a better trade-off be reached between objectivity and reward for non-testable skills?  What is Iran’s social contract?  These are questions that should interest education planners and economists interested in reforming Iran’s system.  They interest me greatly, so I plan to come back to them in this weblog often.

play another day.Shonka
began. He had a stack of
evaluation forms next to him
and, as he watched the game,
he was charting and grading
every throw that Daniel made.
“Then judgment. Hey, if it’s
not there, throw it away and
play another dMalcolm Gladwell article in New Yorker, Most Likely to Succeed, Dec 15, 2008.  Gladwell writes about Dan Shonka, a scout for the US professional football  league. His job is to evaluate players. the extent to which he goes to evaluate different skills a player has shows that evaluation of non-testable skills are possible but costly.  American Football is a multibillion dollar billion industry, so it is worth for someone like Sholka and hunderds like him to have careers doing just that.  What can Iran afford to pay for evaluating its young people?  It depends on how important that is, whether you believe it affects their learning and readiness for life and work as an adult.  I believe Iran should spend much more on student evaluation.
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7 Responses

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  1. a said, on May 18, 2009 at 6:34 pm

    I want to second the above comment, and add that I think the skills required in the job market is far below what the university graduates learn (even when they work in the field have studied), i.e., the whole education is usually unnecessary for the job they are going to do, therefore IMHO I don’t think any change in the university system including the way they enter the university will have a major effect on the situation in the job market.

    • dsalehi said, on May 18, 2009 at 10:14 pm

      It would if “the way they entered the university” was closer to “the way they were expected to perform on the job”. This would include be able to communicate in written form, work with others in teams, be ambitious and honest, and have a positive attitude at work, etc. The one thing that would matter less than all these for most employers is how quickly they can answer multiple choice questions (though I admit that it would matter for some jobs).

      • a said, on May 20, 2009 at 10:15 am

        Thank you for your reply. I see your point. I withdraw my previous comment since I was only thinking about technical skills and my argument was wrong, but I am still doubtful how much effect any change may have.

  2. Tom said, on May 18, 2009 at 5:25 am

    Thank you for taking on an issue which is not related to a) the election, or b) the nuclear issue. May the rest of the blogosphere take note!

    I look forward to hearing more.

    • dsalehi said, on May 18, 2009 at 10:16 pm

      Thanks, Tom. I am glad to hear that someone is getting sick of the beaten tracks and stereotypes.

  3. Amir said, on May 17, 2009 at 3:03 pm

    Really interesting questions.

    Public universities in Iran do not charge their students, which could account for the intense competition for entering them, and gravitation of talented students and professors toward them (that gravitate more talented students and professors and so on).

    So, would charging of public university students level the playing field for education suppliers and motivate providing more and better education through competition, so that the situation of fierce competition in concour and strictly objective selection criteria would be mitigated? (because of less competition by test-takers and more competition by universities to take higher quality students)

    This could have other positive effects too, such as providing better services in public universities (because of their higher revenues), and incentives for public students to study better and finish their studies sooner (because of the fees they would have to pay), incurring less costs on public education budget.

    • alihme said, on May 18, 2009 at 1:38 am

      To Mr. Amir:

      good point on public(state) universities but I’m not sure about its effectiveness when the whole system is not working based on labor market signals.

      The problem is not how do they compete to take qualified students, it’s rather who does the system call “qualified”?

      If students know that in the job market, nobody will ask them about their writing skill, they will never invest on it. This doesn’t depend on whether they pay for education or not, or whether they study in Sharif university or in an unknown university.

      The problem with education system lies in the incentive structure set by labor market. As long as this incentive structure is not defined properly, changing the competition in taking students (either by universities or by test-takers) will not do any good.


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