Honesty in Education

We have to stop thinking of education in terms of time-delimited stages. In a world of advanced technology, specialization, and global competition, the old system of markers — with individuals tiered by the name of the highest degree achieved — is becoming both meaningless and expensive, as each degree level deflates and the education industry turns ever more to government to support some notion of a bare minimum of education.
That’s the conclusion to which my thoughts wandered after reading the following disturbing paragraphs in Julia Steiny’s column today:

So, should the state develop an honest test that many students fail, or should the test be so easy most kids pass it and get the diploma they need?
Rhode Island is trying to solve this dilemma with a diploma system that uses what educators call “multiple measures,” meaning the diploma requires three measurements of ability: Students must complete required course work, do a portfolio or senior project, and pass the tests.

You might have shared my initial reaction: Why can’t we develop an honest test that many students pass? Put differently, why can’t we develop a system that educates students?
Steiny goes on to describe her experience with some sample questions (released questions, 11th grade practice test, answers) and to write:

I could figure out some problems with sheer logic and time. But many were the stuff of my recurring nightmare about having to take a math test with symbols I don’t recognize, requiring functions and formulas I never learned.
Go solve these problems yourself. You might start to think, as I did, that 22 percent was looking understandable, if not exactly good.
You also might wonder, as I did, whether every high school graduate really needs this sort of knowledge.

The second use of the word “need” stands out as critical, especially with reference to public education, because it would be difficult to justify such a huge chunk of government expenditures to give students something that they don’t need. So, according to Steiny:

  • Students need a piece of paper called a high school diploma,
  • But they may not need a level of mathematical knowledge required, according to Steiny, by community colleges (tenth-grade proficiency).

The first point is true enough. In this day and age, one tends to look askance at anybody under the age of, say, fifty-five who admits to not having a diploma or GED. That particular degree tier is pretty much assumed for most employment opportunities. Given diplomas’ near universal acquisition, though, employers looking for proof of an ability to learn and achieve academically began turning to associates and bachelor degrees, and those are rapidly moving toward commodification to the point at which Masters are already the minimum “stand out” degrees.
One already hears politicians’ and activists’ calls for universal access (read, “funding”) to higher education, and it may only be a matter of time until we’re debating whether college graduation tests should be so honest as to deny students the degrees that they, then, will need. Such a possibility points directly back to Steiny’s second statement of need: a substantial portion of the information taught and tested on the way to a bachelor’s degree is by no measure necessary in the sense of being professionally useful later in life. So, why should we allow that number of years of schooling to become obligatory?
As much of an advocate for mathematics as an important body of knowledge as I may be, and as generally applicable as practice solving problems surely is, I can’t go as far as insisting that our high school students ought to be able to calculate the area of an arch formed by quartering a circle in a square and subtracting the triangle formed by the square’s diagonal. Perhaps we would do well to admit that we’re trying to make the high school diploma indicative of two things that don’t actually have to be (and in reality are not always) joined:

  1. That the student possesses a minimum amount of useful knowledge.
  2. That the student is academically capable and ready to move on to higher tiers of learning.

The ad hoc, evolutionary solution has thus far been to pretend that 1 and 2 are equivalent and then to play catch-up as necessary when students go on to college or into a branch of the workforce with similar requirements. Indeed, among the tools used in the development of the NECAP test for math were textbooks designed to bring students up to speed in college. By this approach, students are always behind, and the trend can only be to extend basic education further into an individual’s adult life. I remember one professor’s finding it necessary to rework the syllabus of his 400-level literature course in order to allow time for lessons in basic argumentative writing. As that practice becomes increasingly common, 400-level lessons will, by necessity, be pushed into grad school.
And so, as I began by stating, it may be time to arrest the trend by admitting the truth: most people don’t need but so much education. At the same time, the common experience of childhood schooling is invaluable, for the transmission of culture and for experiential cohesion. Rather than devaluing diplomas by instituting easy tests or “multiple measures” that give credit for effort in order to maintain the golden ring at the end of the process, students who cannot achieve proficiency could move forward in life with some sort of a Certificate of Completion. Or we could go the other way and hand out diplomas and Diplomas with Proficiency.
We’ve fallen into a presumption of high school as broadly college preparatory, and that’s what’s unnecessary. With the separation of “finishing high school” from “having a diploma,” we could more openly admit the extent of information that young adults really ought to have. Employers would have a better sense of candidates’ capabilities. And institutions of higher education, from community colleges to internationally renowned universities, could develop tracks for building on previous educational experience without its having the discouraging feel of backtracking.

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16 years ago

Let me throw this simple but entirely INSANE out there to the crowd.
Ditch ‘grades’. Replace them with “Levels”. Your kid isn’t in the third grade, she’s Math Level 5, English Level 4, and Science a Level 6. She’s only a Level 2 in Spanish, but you’re working extra hard with her on it. (And she’s only ten. Aren’t you proud?).
Create classes where the students are all of similar aptitude levels. All kids go through the “Levels” in sequence and are taught by teachers who are excited to teach because their students are ready and able to learn the material. Nobody is ‘lost’ and nobody is ‘bored’.
If they’ve mastered the “Level” as shown by a series of exam scores, they move to the next “Level”. There they are given a test challenging them on what you’ve already learned and throwing in questions from what they will learn. If a teacher’s entire new class excelled in a specific knowledge set, they won’t have to focus on it so hard for the students to grasp it. If they see a particularly weak spot they know to schedule extra time for it.
And if they see a particularly weak portion of knowledge that should already have been learned, trackable patterns will emerge showing administrators where they need to focus extra training and assistance to the teachers.
Is there a part of that that doesn’t solve virtually EVERY problem we have in the current system?

16 years ago

Have you been reading the Hawaii Department of Education (HDOE) home page about their new grading, marking system, standards, curriculum, grade graduation requirements, NEA teacher, administrator requirements and standards?
Or the article in today’s Honolulu Advertiser about parents and business employees volunteering to provide labor painting a school for free under the Hawaii3R program that saved (HDOE) over $300,000?
Hawaii 3R’s Program
Or maybe the fact that school is in session the whole year in Hawaii (even in the height of summer heat with no air conditioning on schools) except for spaced vacation and holiday breaks?

16 years ago

Greg, Addendum: According to Julia Steiny’s projo column, this was the first time the NECAP test was taken by 11th grades. RI scored right with the other two states except a little lower at 22%. “On this first round of testing, 29 percent of New Hampshire’s 11th graders were proficient, as were 30 percent of Vermont’s. So none of the three states whose kids took the test got more than a third over the proficiency threshold.” Also Julia Steiny pointed out in the article; “Recently, I spoke with John Grey, principal of Barrington High, whose students scored the highest in the state — 63 percent. Surprisingly, he was disappointed with his school’s results because as soon as the state released the GLEs and GSEs, his district — and his school — had taken up the hard work of aligning their curriculum to the tests. Teachers all along the K-12 continuum had sweated through changing what they taught, when and how. So Grey expected better. Of course, each incoming ninth-grade class will have been exposed to more years of the aligned curriculum, which will certainly help. In a survey RIDE conducted, nearly 20 percent of the principals said they had not started the work of integrating the GSEs into their curriculum.” So you had at least one principal take the lead and adjust his schools curriculum to the test and at least 20 other known principals who did nothing to have their teachers adjust. So on average, the RI students as a whole scored at least within 8% of the other states high score that took the same test but that is not good enough! Because of the very bad disgraceful 22% (on par with other states score) you are suggesting we should throw out the whole teaching methodology, scoring, grading,… Read more »

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