Perception and Reality – (Lean not unto thine own understanding…)

In Basic Economics, Thomas Sowell tells a story about a decision made by a New York politician who was attempting to address the homeless problem in New York City. The politician noticed that most of the people who were homeless were also not very wealthy. The politician moved forward with the idea that the apartment rent prices were simply too high for these people to afford a place to stay.

So, he decided to cap the rent prices… and the homeless problem got worse. How could this possibly be?

Well, according to Dr. Sowell, lowering rent prices, while making the apartments more affordable for those in need, did the same for everyone else. The suddenly cheaper rent prices decreased the rates of young folks sharing apartments. Also, people who have several places they call home throughout the year might not have found it reasonable to pay a high rent price to keep a NYC apartment that they might only stay in a few times throughout the year. Lower rent prices made that seem more reasonable.

Evidence also suggested that there was an increase in apartments being condemned. Lowering rent costs meant that landlords found themselves with fewer resources to maintain buildings, repair damages, pay for inspections, etc.

While the decision made the apartments more affordable, it also made them more scarce. There was a disconnect between a decision-maker’s perception of a situation and the reality. That disconnect led to a decision that ended-up being counterproductive.

I may have just done the same thing… maybe.



Sometimes things make so much sense. If we did this, it would HAVE to produce that. It make so much sense. How could it possibly not work?

This perception was in place among some in my community. It led me to decide to try The 70-70 Trial, which I’ve been at for about 10 weeks now. The perception in place goes like this:

a. Formative assessments prepare students for summative assessments.

b. Students who struggle on formative assessments are more likely to struggle on summative assessments (and the inverse is also true.)

It’s with these two perceptions in mind that we assume that the if we can ensure a student achieves success on each of the formative assessments (regardless of the timeline or the number of tries), we improve their chances of success on the summative assessment.

The 70-70 trial did what it could to ensure that at least 70% of the class achieved 70% or higher proficiency on each formative assessment. (There were four.) This included in-class reteach sessions and offering second (and in some cases third) versions of each assessment. With all of those students making “C-” or better on each formative assessment, how could they possibly struggle on the unit test? That was the perception.

50% of the students scored under 50% on the summative assessment. That was the reality.

Now, I am not an alarmist. I understand that one struggling class in one unit doesn’t discredit an entire education theory. But it sure was perplexing. I’ve never seen a test where, after 8 weeks of instruction on a single unit (Unit 4 from Geometry), half of an entire class unable to successfully complete even half of the unit test.

And when you consider that this class was the one class I had put the most effort into defeating just that kind of struggling, well it seems like the intersection of my perception and the reality wasn’t nearly big enough. I just got a better view.

And I’m having a hard time making sense of what I’m seeing.

5 thoughts on “Perception and Reality – (Lean not unto thine own understanding…)

  1. *Low whistle… and a bit of silence*
    That’s rough. When that happens to me I feel like I want to find another line of work.

    I don’t have any answers–only some questions to help me put this in perspective… and because I’m looking at shifting towards standards-based grading next year. This post (and several others like it) make me start to rethink that goal.

    Did you have another class take the same test? If so, how did they do?

    Do you normally have this many students fail the unit 4 test from years past?

  2. I had three other classes take the same test. I ran 70-70 with one other group that performed significantly better, although not enough to make me feel wonderful about it. The other two group did fairly well, but they tend to struggle less in general.

    And question two… no. This test tends to be tougher than most for the students because of all the proportional reasoning, but I’ve never seen anything like 50% under 50%.

  3. First, I want to say that there is nothing more discouraging than when your students don’t do well on your tests. It always makes me question every little thing I’ve done. I’m sure you’ve ruminated through this, but here is my question list:

    Is it possible that so many formative assessments have left the students feeling over prepared, like they “got this” and therefore they put less effort into studying?

    Or did the time drag on too long due to the repeated assessments, causing fatigue or burnout? Did they do well on the recent stuff but underperform on the older material due to a spread out timeline?

    Are you sure your assessments are valid? Meaning, were your formative assessments really leafing towards your summative? Did they match in type and difficulty? Is it possible that 50% of the test was made up of the 30% they missed each time?

    Could it also be that the students somehow saw the content as disconnected bits and had trouble synthesizing it into a whole unit and picking the appropriate strategy once faced with a mix of problems?

    • I am confident in the assessments as other classes (especially ones that weren’t doing 70-70) performed significantly better. Although the irony of the whole thing might be that the benefit those classes had was the pace. This isn’t the first time that I’ve felt like slowing down actually does more harm than good. I think it does a lot of what you suggest. It seems to cause burnout. It seems to disconnect the subtopics within the unit. It seems to create too much distance from start to finish. These all seem reasonable.

  4. Thank you for your feedback on this. I co-teach a class of students. Many are students with various learning disabilities, requiring a slower pace of explanation. What I see is that spending too much time on a subject really is counter productive. If they aren’t getting it, hammering on it doesn’t help. However, sometimes it takes going forward to the next bit – the place where they need to use the skills they aren’t getting – that clinches the understanding. Good practice that builds their remembering and usage skill is the component I see that is currently lacking. Many of my students can’t/won’t focus long enough to work the practice problems, so little or no understanding retention. I have to find pbl type activities, games, discussions, that spark the interest. Today was a simple probability activity with a paper cup. Everybody was on board – Monday I will assess whether it stuck and in what way! Building understanding in 10th graders is a b—-!

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