Educational Testing (K-12) 7 May 2006Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Inequality & Stratification, Social Sciences, Teaching.
To be clear up front: the punitive and ridiculous Federal "no child left behind" program is detrimental to American education, to students of diverse backgrounds and beleaguered school disctricts who struggle just maintain minimum services. I am not speaking in this post of the fucked up idea that funding for education should be linked to poorly conceived and designed standardized tests, which is having the effect of worsening our public education system. This is not the kind of testing I'm talking about here. I also need to admit that in what follows I ignore the tight budgetary constraints in California, which have eliminated music, vocational ed, and arts in many public schools around the state; and which keep many talented individuals from entering the education profession.
It's time to change the way America educates. Like many things, the issue of standardized testing in schools evokes contradictory emotions and values for me, but after living with California education for the past 6 years, I'm at a loss as to what can be done. One thing that seems clear to me is that the education students are receiving leaves them largely bereft of basic intellectual skills and basic knowledge, let alone higher abilities.
In California, we are left with some disturbing questions: Why do students have (supposedly) more homework than ever before, but end up graduating without basic reading skills? or knowledge of geography? or ability to do simple algebra? (etc.) Why do one half of all the freshman admitted to the CSU, supposedly from the top 1/3 of every year's high school graduating class, have to take remedial English and math?
This spring, hundreds of graduating seniors failed the California high school exit exam—enacted in 1999—and several are now suing the state to receive their diplomas anyway, demanding alternatives to the test be given to demonstrate academic competencies in English and Math. The exam can be taken multiple times, starting Sophomore year, and students have only to pass it once. I can't help but find myself unsympathetic to their law suit. There are only so many excuses that can be made for being a high school senior and not having the basic skills to pass an exam on English and Math, which is basically at an 8th grade level.
As a college professor teaching young people educated in both public and private schools in California, I have found a core set of "Faulty Educational Values" driving K-12 education in the state (and perhaps around the country), which I find reflected in my students' attitudes and performance at the college level. (To be fair, I also find some of these problematic values in higher education, especially in the humanities and social sciences.)
Value 1. So-called "critical thinking" without requiring students to learn anything to think about—facts, ideas, data, history, biology, chemistry, geology, sociology, literature, etc.
Value 2. Self-esteem at the expense of having adequate expectations and accountability for the students, and rewarding failure by facilitating students' move through the grades, regardless of their skills or abilities.
Value 3. Business skills for the job market (e.g., using Microsoft Office Suite) over substantive content, valuing delivery method over meaningful thought.
Value 4. College education is normative, without providing K-12 education that actually prepares students for college.
Value 5. College education is normative at the expense of perfectly legitimate trades and skills, eliminating funding for trades and skills both in the secondary and post-secondary levels.
Values must be judged by their consequences or effects, and clearly, the "touchy-feely" values that have driven education since the Baby Boomers became teachers and parents have not worked. Students are less well-educated, less proficient in basic English and Math, less knowledgeable of the world around them than they were 35 years ago (see the School & College report mentioned below). This failure of values requires a rethinking of both values and means to our educational ends as a nation, a society, and a democracy.
The tension between the college level and the secondary level is increasing around the country. In Nevada, for example, the state legislature just cut off funding for remedial education at the University of Nevada, arguing that students who need remedial educaction should not be at UNR to begin with and that high schools need to be producing college level graduates. The Chronicle of Higher Education has recently published the results of a study about high school graduates' preparation for college and the gulf between university professors' and high school teachers' perceptions called School & College. For example, roughly 80% of college professors say their students are not prepared for college, whereas 80% of high school teachers say their students are prepared.
One way to deal with these issues is to set standards for knowledge and skills at specific grade levels, which must be demonstrated in tests before advancement to the next level. To be most effective, I would suggest grouping grades together, so that there would be a test maybe every three years, grouping students within 3-5 years in age of each other together, rather than in yearly grades. This would require us to give up the idea of automatic yearly progress through grades, and would require the disarticulation of "grades" from skill level. This is roughly the French system, which every four years requires students to demonstrate their readiness to advance. However, I do have some serious reservations about this kind of testing, but I think that many of them could be addressed, and we could have a more fair American system that would still put expectations and accountability in place. Here are my reservations:
1. In European systems, at age 14, students are tracked in either a "university" or a "trade" high school. Rather than tracking for university or trade that early, I would suggest that the testing be used as a tool to gage students' progress and skills and knowledge and to get them the effective help they need, maintaining as much flexibility and openness as possible for students to choose their own paths' goals. I do believe that a functioning democracy should maximize the availability and quality of education for all its citizens; but I also have to believe that that democratic goal can be met without a universal dumbing down of our population or lowering of standards and expectations.
2. The content of these tests can be very problematic, especially in multicultural America. And yet, even in History, there are key issues and events that I would argue must be discussed and learned about and debated by young people to bring them into the sphere of democracy and train them for public participation. In many states, there are already curriculum committees in place which lay out general curriculum guidelines, which are provisional and change regularly, in everything from math to history, from biology to English. These tests could be linked to those curriculum changes and developments, and designed in a similar fashion by a committee of experts that debates the content. This would allow for the contingency of knowledge to be acknowledged and for value debates to occur in the designing of the test to ensure they are flexible enough to change over time and follow the developments of the students' education.
3. I fear that these kinds of tests could lead to an opposite effect of the current values. Whereas teaching students supposed "critical thinking" without teaching them any facts or data to think about is problematic, it is equal problematic to establish a kind of education that would devolve into rote memorization without thinking and evaluation in order to pass the tests. One of the possible strengths of the American education system is that it has the potential to encourage creative and innovate thinkers. I don't have any good ideas about how to do this, but the testing needs to be implemented in such a way that students would still be learning critical and evaluative and creative thinking skills and have the basic knowledge and skills to pass the gateway tests.
Despite these reservations, from the vantage of a college professor, I am at present firmly in favor of high school graduation examinations and perhaps even college admissions exams (more along the lines of the ACT, rather than the SAT). And I've even been reading lately about some majors that require exit exams for Bachelor's Degrees. I'm open to suggestions and arguments contrary to what I've laid out (sparsely) here.