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6 minutes reading time (1102 words)

Testing Supercomputers and Testing Students

Here is an article that I found quite interesting:

Niccolal, James (7/10/2013). Move over, Linpack: Supercomputers get new performance test. Computerworld. Retrieved 7/14/2013 from

There is a twice-yearly ranking of the fastest computers in the world. These supercomputers are many times faster than the types of desktop, laptop, and tablet computers that most people use. See Quoting from this reference:

Tianhe-2, a supercomputer developed by China’s National University of Defense Technology, is the world’s new No. 1 system with a performance of 33.86 petaflop/s on the Linpack benchmark, according to the 41st edition of the twice-yearly TOP500 list of the world’s most powerful supercomputers. The list was announced June 17 during the opening session of the 2013 International Supercomputing Conference in Leipzig, Germany.

The quote is interesting because it mentions an annual international conference on supercomputers, the TOP500 list, the long-used measure of supercomputer speed called the Linpack, and the fact that China has recently produced the world’s fastest computer. Wow! Supercomputers must be a big deal!

I just logged onto the site and after a few seconds the site told me that my iMac computer (which is relatively new) is running at a speed of 1.17 gigaflops. Giga means a billion, and a flop is a “floating point operation.” Thus, my machine can do somewhat over a billion add, subtract, multiply, or divide operations (in scientific notation) in one second. If the term scientific notation bothers you, just think in terms of doing arithmetic with decimal numbers. See

The new Chinese computer is nearly 30 million times as fast as my computer. So, roughly speaking, in certain types of problems the new Chinese computer takes only about a minute to do the computations that my computer would take 30,000,000 minutes (about 57 years) to complete. I said “certain types of problems” because computers take varying lengths of time to do the four different arithmetic operations. Computers also do a wide variety of other operations such as comparing the size of numbers, moving numbers from one set of memory location to another, and so on. So, how does one compare two computers that have different speeds on each of the types of operations the machine is “wired” (that is, constructed) to perform? Remember, there is the added challenge that different brands of computers may have different “machine” (that is, built-in) languages.

The Linpack test is a set of computational tasks used to compare speeds of different types of computers. Since the computer manufacturers know the details of this test, they can design computers that are especially fast in the particular computational tasks in the test. If the test is changed, a computer’s speed rank may change. Quoting from the Supercomputers get new performance test article:

"Linpack measures the speed and efficiency of linear equation calculations," according to a statement Wednesday announcing the new benchmark, called the High Performance Conjugate Gradient (HPCG). "Over time, applications requiring more complex computations have become more common. These calculations require high bandwidth and low latency, and access data using irregular patterns. Linpack is unable to measure these more complex calculations."

HPCG is needed, Jack Dongarra said in a telephone interview, in part because computer vendors optimize their systems to rank highly on the Top500 list. If that list is based on an out of date test, it encourages vendors to architect their systems in a way that's not optimal for today's applications.

Teaching to the Test

Aha! The last paragraph is almost exactly the same as the idea of teaching to the test. Our current educational system places a great deal of emphasis on teaching to the test. But, what if the test is out of date? Textbook companies and teachers teach to the test. Over time, students—on average—get higher test scores because of improvements in teaching to the test. If the test is changed, test scores go down. You can read about this “problem” with the new Common Core State Standards tests that are now being field-tested. See and

But, let’s carry this a step further. Suppose both the older and the newer tests include an emphasis on testing things that are out of date and/or that a computer can do much faster and much more accurately than a well-educated student? What constitutes a good education for adulthood in a world where computers are getting smarter and smarter? We can make obvious (and silly) statements that there is little value in preparing students to make a living competing against computers in chess playing or in the game of Jeopardy. We can pick better examples, such as teaching students the ability to efficiently and effectively evaluate and make use of information that is available on the Web. Or how about teaching students to use our modern telecommunications system? Just using the full range of features on a modern smart phone seems to overwhelm many adults.

Final Remarks

The CCSS initiative is a bold approach to improving our educational system. However, it seems to me it is, in some ways, quite inadequate in educating students for adult life in our current high tech and rapidly changing world. Students need to learn to work effectively with computers, rather than compete with them. See and

What You Can Do

Gresham's law is an economic principle that states:

“When a government overvalues one type of money and undervalues another, the undervalued money will leave the country or disappear from circulation into hoards, while the overvalued money will flood into circulation." It is commonly stated as: "Bad money drives out good.” See

Now let’s modernize the statement and apply it to education. Bad testing drives out good testing and can severely damage good teaching. Think about what this might mean. What are your personal thoughts about it? When you construct tests, do they adequately reflect your insights into what constitutes a good education that helps prepare students for their adult lives?

Suggested Readings from IAE and Other Publications

You can use Google to search all of the IAE publications. Click here to begin. Then click in the IAE Search box that is provided, insert your search terms, and click on the Search button.

Click here to search the entire collection of IAE Blog entries. Here are some examples of publications that might interest you.

Are we missing the point of effective assessment? See

Computerization of jobs. See

Free book on U.S. Common Core State Standards. See

Hand printing, cursive writing, and fingered speech. See

Important ideas about 21st century education. See

Moore’s Law and improving education. See

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Friday, 03 December 2021

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