Just a quickie post, stimulated by doing some grading.
It’s often said that high school and college education has declined in the U.S., But I don’t think that’s something we actually know.
One example that’s often used is a purported high school graduation exam from the late 19th century, which poses questions very few of us could answer today, such as;
- Name the parts of speech and define those that have no modifications.
- Name and describe the following: Monrovia, Odessa, Denver, Manitoba, Hecla, Yukon, St. Helena, Juan Fernandez, Aspinwolf and Orinoco.
- Relate the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War
As Snopes correctly notes,
What [critics] fail to grasp is “I can’t answer these questions” is not the same thing as “These questions demonstrate that students in earlier days were better educated than today’s students. Just about any test looks difficult to those who haven’t been recently steeped in the material it covers”
There are multiple reasons why we don’t know that education that answered those questions was superior to today’s education. First, we don’t know how well the students retained that knowledge. Second, some of those things we don’t teach today because we’re teaching other things that we have decided are more important. You don’t have to agree that everything that in schools today is valuable to agree that knowing that Juan Fernandez is a set of islands off the coast of Chile may not be among the crucial elements of knowledge for success and happiness in the 21st century. We also don’t know the extent to which teachers taught to the test–we tend to assume that’s a contemporary phenomena, but with a test like that (assuming it’s real, which we also don’t know), did anyone back there face different incentives than teachers to today?
Finally, and this is the real issue for me. We don’t know how strictly those alleged tests were graded. I can give as hard a test as I want and let everyone pass by not grading too strictly. Consider the third question above, on the causes and effects of the Revolutionary War. That’s an essay question, open to as subjective a grading standard as any other essay question. When we interpret this, we tend to assume students had to offer a fairly sophisticated explanation, but how do we know that “The king taxed the colonists too much, so they got angry and rebelled and created the best country on earth” isn’t at least a “B” answer by the expectations of those grading the tests?
There are problems with K-12 education today. From my own subjective perspective as someone who teaches recent high school graduates, the fundamental problems are a disinterest in reading, a lack of critical thinking skills, and lack of mathematical competency. When I left high school nearly 30 years ago, I indisputably lacked mathematical competency, I’m pretty damn sure my critical thinking skills were not at the level I thought they were, and while I loved to read I hated reading textbooks (I think students hatred of reading for classes is more a function of bad textbook writing than lack of interest in reading–J.K. Rowling didn’t make her billions solely off the movies and apparel). Do we have actual evidence that it was any different 80 years ago, or 100 years ago?
We don’t, and the alleged test is not evidence that it was different back then. It is at best a proxy measure, and not a particularly strong one.