Thursday, March 26, 2009

Testing Aptitude Test

I used to date a girl who strongly believed that it's discriminatory to give grades to students. She argued that grading is culturally-biased, harmful to the student's self-esteem, and too subjective to be of any use. Eventually, she believed, all schools would understand this truth and phase out grades altogether.

For some reason, this came to mind when I read this article about universities phasing out the SAT requirement. I have a somewhat unique take on this- I never took the SATs, not expecting to actually attend university, and wound up doing fine without it. So it's sort of hard for me to believe that the SAT is the key to later success in academia.

On the other hand, it's tempting to make the lazy quip that this should lead to more richness and diversity among the group of college drop-outs. I teach an introductory course to freshmen who, across the board, know nothing- they are completely and totally uneducated after high school. Their high school diplomas are barely worth the paper they're printed on. It's nothing personal, or particularly culturally-specific- they're mostly white kids from the suburbs- it's not even their fault. It's just that public education has completely failed them. It's too much public and too little education. The SATs are messages from that dying world.

So, on we go. Our eternal dream is to take the uneducated and to educate them. This is what keeps me awake at night. When I meet a student who wants to know anything more than they know, my heart soars. And, thankfully, some of them will indeed be more educated after four years of university. Many of them will not. It's still fairly hard for us nerds to compete for attention with the college booze cruise. Over half of them will flunk out. But I'm skeptical that the SATs really do predict which ones will thrive and which ones will wilt in the college soil.

Honestly, it seems to me that the ''factor'' that is most important to future college success is simply fear. The ones who do well seem to me to be the ones who are most shocked when they realize just how uneducated they are, and they scramble to get through university without flunking out. Ultimately, a humanistic education should assault your sense of self. It's not supposed to be therapeutic or comforting. It's hard work and sometimes painful, but in the end, it's worth the struggle. I still believe that this is good for us. Year after year, the students I see who are the most assaulted by the ''college experience'' are the ones who graduate magna cum laude, all the while sure that they'll fail. They're the ones I would do anything to help when I have them in my classes, probably because I see myself in them. I am still only partially educated, and still working every day to become educated.

It's hard for me to see what difference the SATs make in any of this. Given the total failure of public high schools, I see no distinction between a student with good scores and one with lousy scores. What makes the difference is just their desire, and frankly most people, much less most teenagers, simply lack that.


Alex said...

Your Ex must have found a job at the Québec Ministry of Education...

When I was studying for my masters, I was also teaching a HS science introductory class. A while back, across the board, the government switched from a knowledge based teaching approach to a competency based approach. It's a mess, nobody understands the f***ing thing, save a couple of people in the ministry. The worst part is that since they've implemented this reform, parents, teachers and event some school boards are fighting to go back to knowledge based teaching.

With this, they've removed everything that has to do with grading. Forget percentages, an "A" means that the kid is more than competent in something or another, a "D" means he's not competent at all... Note that there is no "E", so nobody fails anymore. Every single kid will go up to the next grade, until graduation.

While this approach does wonders for graduation statistics, the kids didn't take long in becoming competent in understanding this... So hard work goes out the window, and neither the parents nor the teachers can do anything about it since they'll all graduate in the end.

As a teacher, the only thing I could do is give enough of a good show in order to promote interest.

However, since I never learned the concepts of science but rather the actual knowledge on science which is needed to apply the scientific method, I did give a knowledge based class.

The kids, who had never been taught this way before, first hated me for it, and ended up saying my class was the best.

I also graded them... And they did exactly what we used to do: Be happy for a good grade, be disappointed for a bad one and compared grades. The ones that didn't care, we're the same that didn't care when we were kids, no matter how hard I tried.

And when I would discuss these few bad apples with teachers who were teaching according to the competency based approach, we found that they were not doing better.

I have to admit that grading is not always the best approach, say in the arts or social studies... BUT, it sometimes is a necessary evil, depending on the subject. And as far as the SAT's results for university admission, maybe it would be best to use them not as criteria, but more as an evaluation of acquired knowledge.

I'll stop here, sorry for the long winded comment...

Rufus said...

It's an interesting story. I have to admit that I'm at a loss as to how one could grade competence in learning without grading knowledge. But I am more than familiar with professors who put the lowest grade at about a D so that everyone passes. The end result does seem to be a sort of disinterest and ennui, since nothing the students do matters very much. I think most American high schools have actually made A the default grade, so that if you do nothing terribly wrong, you get an A, which used to mean excellent.

Holly said...

To provide a little counterpoint...

I graduated high school with a low D average. I was down there with the kids who only came to school once a week, and only then to meet their dealer.

However--on a whim I took the SAT, without prep, and had a combined 1380. This was before the revision to the scoring system; that was considered a highly respectable score. Definitely in the top 10%. (I was SHOCKED to learn lots of people were scoring under 800, since you basically got 400 just for signing your name.)

That ONE number got me into college. I know this, because the admissions people told me so.

Clearly the things I was getting grades for in school were not doing a very good job of assessing my competence, at least in things relating to English and Math.

I also got a 5 on the AP English exam and got to skip pretty much all the English course requirements for my degree, even though I failed English at least one quarter every year of high school

Point being--any attempt to assess every single student with a generalized system is going to flop. There's been such an effort to objectify grading that it has become kind of pointless. The kid who doesn't come to class and doesn't turn in the assignments but aces every exam and clearly owns the material can fail just as well as the student who attends every class, does every assignment, and has NO IDEA what the point of the class was.

Rufus said...

It does seem to me like there's a really weird divide- most people I knew who did well in university, including myself, did really lousy in high school. That's actually a pretty good argument for the SATs- they can catch those students who are bright, but who hate being in high school- which would seem to include all of the bright ones!

narrator said...

Well, I did strangely in both high school and college. Did really well (with a reader) on the 'old' SATs (1400) which led a HS guidance counselor to accuse me of cheating. Anyway, all in the way of disclosure.

Every standardized test is viciously culturally biased. Actually every grading system is culturally biased. The SATs are relatively worthless. I'm fully against grades because I believe that they motivate the wrong things. I'm entirely against competitive (Bell Curve-based) grading because I KNOW it motivates the wrong things.

And those are not just disconnected thoughts.

I was lucky enough to attend a high school without grades and without even the "fail" part of "pass/fail." But it was linked to an entire system which shifted all responsibility for learning to the student (crazy, weird, alternative school students). I don't think any group of adolescents I've ever seen learned more in high school, though it was mostly peer to peer, with tons of very informal research.

I was also lucky to attend a college, an architectural school, without grades, without competition. It was a brilliant training ground in the kind of collaborative learning essential to professional practice. I wish the social scientists at my current university knew how to truly collaborate, but they do not, because their entire educations have been about competition, and grades, and not cheating.

On the other hand - which is more fair? The Brit A-Levels determine your college (the irish Leavings, whatever), or the US system, daddy's wealth status controls? I think little of the A-levels but I also know it is a fairer system than what exists in America.

So, what do I think? You can only generate the positive kind of fear you describe - the "gosh, I need to know that" kind of motivation, by bringing kids into diverse environments where there is no "norm" of knowledge (your suburban white kids are idiots because they have had no reason to learn anything - their world is so homogenous and simplified that education is unnecessary). In diverse environments, without a "norm" or absolute cultural centre, the need to learn is linked to basic cultural survival.

Thus, the students least prepared for actual university learning are often those from the 'best' high schools, the ones who do the best on the SATs, etc. They have been too comfortable and too successful to bother with actual learning.

- Ira Socol