Thursday, August 19, 2010

Of Teaching And Testing

Today is the first day with students.  It’s a ritual; there’s a little dog and pony show, a few laughs, a few reminders, and the hope for a fresh start.  

Yesterday, the 2010 ACT data were released. It’s a ritual; there’s a big dog and pony show, several sorrowful condemnations of the nation’s secondary education system, and demands for wholesale change.  

According to the Wall Street Journal article “Scores Stagnate At High Schools,”  “fewer than 25% of 2010 graduates who took the ACT college-entrance exam possessed the academic skills necessary to pass entry-level courses.”  Jack Jennings, president of the Center on Education Policy, asserts that these scores indicate "High schools are the downfall of American school reform. . . ."  

First, without access to the actual data, one has to assume that ACT released the scores of only students who graduated in 2010 not students who took the test in 2010.  Large numbers of juniors take the test every spring.  Juniors have completed only 75% of their high school education; they probably shouldn’t be college ready.  Second, many seniors take the tests offered in September or October.  Once again, they have over half of their senior year to develop the requisite skills.  

ACT may have some formula to take these factors into account. Outside of Delphi, prophecy is a tricky business. I’d like to know how a testing company can determine whether a given student will or will not learn enough to prepare them for college when meteorologists have trouble accurately predicting tomorrow’s weather.  
Let’s assume that ACT has correctly ascertained that graduates are not prepared for the future, and let’s take at face value that this fact “suggests that the core courses they are taking are not sufficient to prepare them for what they will face in college or the work force."  What should the education establishment do?  I want to do my job.  I don’t want to send students out to fail.  

I’ll offer a few modest proposals.  I would guess that they will be ignored.  

First, colleges and universities should end their practice of accepting students in October or November.  No student should be accepted until April 15.  Students who have been accepted don’t need to work with the same rigor as those who are still trying to impress admission committees.  

Second, colleges and universities need to reject more applicants.  If more students saw that poor high school performance meant not being able to attend college, more students would work.  Listening to lectures is preferable to asking “Do you want fries with that?” 

Third, scrap NCLB.  Under NCLB, high schools are applying a version of the Pareto principle; 80% of the effort and resources are going to the 20% who must be brought up the proficient so that America can say 100% of its students are proficient in reading and math.  The rest of the students are given the other 20% of a school’s resources.  Moving away from NCLB will allow schools to allocate more resources to prepare students for college.  

Fourth, lengthen or alter the school year.  The WSJ article quotes Joseph Harris, director of the National High School Center at the American Institutes for Research, who says, "We have a conflict where we are trying to increase the rigor and push kids to learn more, yet we try to do all of this in the same 180 days, 40-50 minute classes we've always had.  High schools are still very traditional institutions."  

There’s no doubt in my mind that teachers and schools can and should do more.  The problem is that most solutions forced upon secondary education have worsened the situation.  This round of hand-wringing is unlikely to change that trend.

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