Wednesday, October 16, 2013

The misuse of academic tests

I recently wrote two pieces for National Review on the use of academic tests to promote "educational romanticism"--the belief that all students have the same ability. First, we have the annual alarm raised by the College Board regarding SAT scores: 
It's time again for the yearly ritual: The College Board releases data on recent SAT scores, which show some large percentage of American students are not "college ready." The alarm is sounded. Much hand-wringing follows. Wash, rinse, repeat.
Absent from the College Board's press release (and almost all subsequent media coverage) is a discussion of what percentage of students should be college-ready. Here's a better way to think about the performance of our schools:
Rather than gnashing teeth about college readiness each year, a more productive activity would be to analyze the degree to which our school system is tailoring instruction to individual student needs. For example, is vocational training available to kids who want it? Are two-year technical degrees advertised properly? Are gifted students challenged enough? These are much more important topics than tabulating what percentage of students pass an arbitrary test-score threshold.
Part of the movement to equalize outcomes is "open access" for advanced placement (AP) courses. Rather than invite the most capable students to enroll, some schools are subjecting oversubscribed AP courses to a random lottery, thereby excluding some of the best students. This is simply a bad policy, one that hurts kids at both ends of the ability distribution.

Let me state for the record that I like tests. I like that the SAT can sometimes reveal people's academic talent even when their grades are poor. I like that AP tests challenge high-achieving students with college-level material. Even the dreaded "teaching to the test" phenomenon can help focus a class on learning essential material. And the results of student tests, when properly incorporated into value-added models, can be useful in evaluating teacher performance. But:
It’s ironic how tests have been re-purposed in the service of egalitarianism. The SAT is normally used by selective colleges to help differentiate applicants, but now the College Board uses it to push a college-for-all ideology. AP courses were intended to give an extra challenge to the most capable students, but now the same courses are seen as tools for closing the achievement gap. Welcome to the strange world of American education policy.
Read my piece on the SAT here, and then the follow-up on AP tests here.

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