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:
- That the student possesses a minimum amount of useful knowledge.
- 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.