Is Standardized State and Federal-Mandated Testing Destroying Education?

Update: The following essay was written October 2011. On March 30th, 2013, the Atlanta Public Schools Superintendent and 34 other school officials were charged with running a “corrupt organization” (yes, just like the Mafia). The 35 individuals have been indicted for falsifying standardized test scores. (WashingtonPost)

Let me begin by stating I am not going to lay a tremendous amount of blame at the feet of Secondary Education (SE); high school teachers relax. I will blame SE, though the teachers themselves are not the ones responsible. No, responsibility falls upon administrators who promote and support standardized testing, and State and Federal proponents of standardized testing. Teachers are simply doing as they are instructed, against their will in many cases.

Next, I blame Higher Education, colleges and universities who create vague descriptions of “qualities of a successful student,” and pin success to nearly meaningless SAT/ACT scores. I see this “mission statements” at the beginning of every semester, working at a regional university, with the fall semester introducing the newest marketing gung-ho brainwashing scheme of vague “characteristics” or “traits,” which I  typically call shenanigans on. When a roomful of Ph.Ds cannot translate the grandiose flowery language of obscure adjectives written by PR wonks into meaningful and measureable quantities, how can parents, high school guidance counselors, or students figure out what skills are needed to succeed in college?

Next, I blame the Business Sector. Yeah, you, Ms. Businesswoman and Mr. Businessman. You’re not innocent, either. Look, in my mind you represent the end of the Education chain. Your interest is in hiring educated people. Thus, as you have a vested interest in the education and skills of the people you hire, you need to be actively engaged in the Education System, from high school through college. Some of you do a pretty good job. Cisco works with community colleges, as does Microsoft, and Ford. Though, again, in my mind, this is not enough. Business needs to be a focal supporter, proponent, cheerleader, and, when needed, opponent of education policy.

Education cannot occur in a vacuum. That is, Secondary Education cannot simply take place in high school; college and university education cannot occur in vacuum. And, Business/Industry cannot sit by idly waiting for the Education Machine to churn out products in hopes the machine dumps out graduates with critical-thinking skills and business acumen.

Everyone needs to be contributing to the Education Process with the proximate goal of producing trainable and employable people that meet the needs of the U.S. economy, and the distal goal of improving U.S. society overall.

I recommend that everyone google something like the following search terms, “40%,” “remedial,” and “classes,” and then survey the number of states that report the percent of high school students needing remedial classes in college.

MINNESOTA (link): 33% of high school students entering 4-yr institutions and 50% entering 2-yr institutions require at least one remedial class.

NEW YORK (link): 75% of incoming freshman not ready for college and require at least one remedial math, English, or reading class; 25% of incoming freshman need all three.

ILLINOIS (link): Only 32% of high school graduates are college-ready

COLORADO (link): About 33% of incoming freshman need at least one remedial class.

Nearly every state shares a similar story. Nevada (link), for example, has the worst high school graduation rate in the United States, and over 25% of incoming college freshman needing remedial classes.

INSIDE HIGHER ED (link) has an interesting essay rebutting the Myth of Remedial Education. Many of their points are well-made. I would take issue with the “Myth of Bankrupting the System,” as I believe their comments do not appreciate the secondary costs of Education, or completely recognize other factors complicating higher education costs.

Numerous additional cost of Remedial Education have been identified. Remedial classes cost the same as a “real” college class. Remedial classes do not count towards graduation. Thus, remedial classes can increase time in college. The longer a person stays in school, the greater the amount of student loan debt. Student loan debt will not only increase to meet the need of the additional class and materials, but also living expenses. INSIDE HIGHER ED cites an Ohio study that appears to indicate that the additional costs do not increase appreciably increase the overall cost or debt. I dispute the study. Did they consider students stop attending college in their junior or senior year due to running out of money? The university I work for lost 96 seniors in the 2009-2010 school year due to the fact they ran out of funds. How? I don’t know why; I simply do not have access to the data.

Additionally, another trait of college students is their ability to change majors. Most college students will change their major 3x’s over the course of their academic career.

What is the impact of changing majors + the impact of beginning with remedial courses on a student’s overall education budget?

A savvy student may try to minimize the impact of these change on their academic career. Often, though, I overhear students telling others in conversation, “yeah, it means taking an extra semester,” or “I’m sort of upset, because it means staying in school for another year-and-a-half. I don’t know how I’m going to pay for it, though.

My title might lead one to think that I feel standardized testing is ruining the U.S. Educational System. How can a test ruin a system? Answer: It can’t. But, the policies and people behind the system certainly can ruin Education. Standardized testing and assessments without concrete goals, without what I call an “Endgame” are simply worthless endeavors that can essentially measure only a teacher’s ability to make administrators happy – at best, and pass uneducated students up the Education Ladder, displacing responsibility, and hurting people – at worst.

The crux of my concern rests with the goal of Assessment.

  1. What is the goal of state assessments if students still need remedial classes in college?
  2. If assessments are not used to correct/improve students knowledge in preparation for life after high school, then what are administrators doing???
  3. Are tax dollars being effectively spent if significant numbers of students are being required to retake high school classes in college?
  4. Aren’t assessments failing if students are not meeting the needs of higher education and business?
  5. If Education Policy is not producing qualified students, is not Education then failing the individual student, and U.S. productivity and economy in the greater sense?

I posit that Education Policy in the United States is seemingly rudderless. I say that because I see this disconnect between Secondary Education, Higher Education, and Business/Industry. Education appears fortified into virtual “stovepipes” rather than an open and holistic approach needed for inspirational economic thought and progress.

Walter Isaacson, in Steve Job’s biography, notes that what makes the United States economically successful is our ability to openly express diverse ideas. Few countries enjoy the same ability to openly express knowledge and ideas found in the United States.

I cite Isaacson to argue that while I do not want to produce a population of like-minded automatons, I do feel that the United States needs a definitive education policy enforcing educational standards among all levels of learning, that enforces all levels to cooperate in learning, that encourages and supports investment in business/industry support of education in all levels of learning, and that enforces a system that helps students discover their potential and furthermore provides guidance in achieving that potential.

The current Education System in place seems to exemplify anarchy – not chaos, mind you; those two terms are not interchangeable. Anarchy merely means a bunch of groups that adhere to their own internal sets of rules. Anarchy could evolve into chaos when these different groups come into conflict with each other. Chaos can erupt in the absence of a strong governing power, leadership, oversight, or direction.

We, meaning the United States, leave educational decisions in the hands of children. We (adults) offer little in the way of true guidance. Individually, some of us are better than others; but as a society, we stink.

We encourage little, if any, business or corporate buy-in. For as much as Colleges and Universities need to make clear what makes a successful college student, Business/Industry need to speak-up and help guide the discussion rather than sit back and wait to see what our monolithic Educational System churns out. The U.S. needs to demand greater partnerships between public education and private enterprise.

Higher education needs to divulge the Secrets of Successful College Students. ACT/SAT scores are OK for discriminating students, but do not communicate a students true math, English, or reading skills. Something different might be required. And, these stupid “mission statements,” or stupid “10 Themes” that use phrases like “synthesize information by questioning the status quo…” do no one any favors. Hypocritical, in my mind; as an instructor I want good real-world examples, yet administrators dig out their thesaurus in developing arcane themes that faculty, staff, and students each interpret differently.

Finally, assessments are simply dumb if the assessment is the end-goal. Doubly-dumb if the students get wind that the “assessment period” is over and stop making an effort. Tests provide no incentive. Tests are not the goal. Creating people who can think and be productive in colleges and universities is the objective. Helping young people and encouraging them to be productive people is the goal. Helping business and industry educate employees is the goal. If Higher Ed is having to fix problems passed along by Secondary Ed, then assessments must be worthless. If Higher Ed is not producing people needed by business, then Higher Ed is failing.

Taken together, Education must be significantly flawed.

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