Here’s the third of a run of three impressive Comments of the Day from two days ago: a dissenting take on the pandemic-linked Oregon law allowing students to receive a high school diploma despite not possessing documented proof of basic academic skills at the high school level. Since the author, the much esteemed Curmie, is a professional educator (and not in Oregon) his analysis carries due weight, and is worth pondering.
Below is his Comment of the Day on my post, “It’s A “Ripley”! Oregon High School Grads No Longer Have To Know How To Read, Write, Or Do Math At High School Levels.” And I apologize for the inexcusably clichéd musical accompaniment. At least it isn’t the Art Garfunkle version…
I’ll stipulate that the argumentation is stupid. That said, the actual change in policy is at the very least far less laughable than you suggest; indeed, I’d argue it’s a net positive.
What has actually happened is that Oregon has decided not to put all its faith in a standardized test run by a for-profit corporation. I don’t think that’s a bad call. Even the most professionally run of these exams have histories of major problems. Numerous math questions aren’t age-appropriate. (The people who write the exams aren’t educators–they’re often education majors who couldn’t get a job as a teacher.) There was a case few years ago where a reading comprehension problem was leaked, and a poet got two out of five questions “wrong” about his own work!
But the writing sections are the worst. Even the testing companies aren’t brash enough to argue that computers can score writing (although some are experimenting with the idea). So they hire graders. These jobs generally pay less than $12 an hour and require only a college degree… in anything! For that kind of money, you’re not going to get someone who can tell the difference between a sonnet and a laundry list.
So the company makes it easy for them: there’s a formula. Five paragraphs. First one says what you’re going to say. Next three, you say it (actually saying anything is more or less optional). Last paragraph: say what you just said. Follow this, without any enormous grammatical errors, and you’ll be fine. But woe betide the student who writes a coherent and persuasive essay… but wraps it up in four paragraphs. (The sonnet/laundry list line is an exaggeration; the five paragraphs or you fail part is not.)
The serious decline in writing skills I see in today’s students relative to their peers of even two decades ago (in the same courses at the same university) has occurred not despite the Great God Accountability (worshiped by both political parties, albeit in different ways), but because of it. I’ve seldom had students question their grades on essays, but when they do, I almost always have to control my urge to scream at them, “you got a bad grade because you didn’t freaking say anything.” But… but… it was five paragraphs, and…
So many of today’s students are terrible writers in part because they’ve never learned to think. They’ve been taught to follow the formula. There’s a “correct” answer for everything; their job is to memorize it and spew it back on demand. But ask them whether Hally or Sam is the protagonist in ”Master Harold”… and the boys, and a goodly number will start looking like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.
Students coming out of Oregon schools have demonstrated the necessary skills in the 3-R’s to the satisfaction of their teachers, who, at the very least, see them every day, and therefore know that although that particular essay wasn’t great, young Tiffany or Caleb can actually write. To be sure, I’ve seen enough functional illiterates in my college classes not to trust high school teachers’ opinions unhesitatingly. Life gets a lot easier when students pass: the school looks better, there’s less conflict, less chance of a lawsuit.
But the corporate hacks are equally incentivized to find some failures: after all, if they’re seen as simply endorsing the teachers’ opinions, even state legislators aren’t dumb enough to keep paying them pots of money to do so forever. And by “pots of money,” I’m talking tens of millions of dollars a year in a state the size of Oregon, precious little of which lucre will find its way into the hands anyone but upper management.
Do standardized test scores tell us anything? Sure, but not anything like the full picture. To use an example from one of your favorite topics, Jack: does a baseball player’s batting average mean anything? It does. But let’s compare centerfielders from when you and I were lads. Manny Mota’s lifetime BA was .304; Willie Mays’s was .301. Which one would you rather have on your team? And if .300 is the cut-off, then Mota passes and Duke Snider (.295) doesn’t. I beg to differ.