Testing: Missing the Mark in Education

It wasn’t a case of blaring headlines, yet the local New York media did provide a decent amount of coverage to the cheating scandal that has recently rocked Stuyvesant High School. Apparently a student was caught after taking a photo of a Spanish regent and texting it to his fellow students. The confiscated cell phone also had photos of earlier Physics and English regents. The student was expelled, several other accomplices were suspended, and 69 students were forced to retake exams.

While anyone who has lived through high school wouldn’t be shocked about students cheating on exams (indeed one could almost feel the envy of those too old to have had the chance to employ cell phones in that endeavor), what made this particular case newsworthy was simply the name of the school where it took place: Stuyvesant. Generally considered to be the most elite school in the city, it might be enough to make even a hardened cynic shake their head when the New York Daily News quoted a student claiming that cheating was “rampant”. The same article also referred to a similar recent scandal in Wake County, N.C., home to one of that county’s elite high school. Five juniors were nabbed in that episode.

What often makes such schools unique is that admission completely depends on the results of a single test specially designed by the school. In the case of Stuyvesant the admission rate for this fall’s incoming class was 4%, 967 students out of 23,899 test takers. In what has become standard at schools considered top notch, the student body is overwhelming Asian and White, about 72% Asian, 24% white, approximately 4% Hispanic and black.

In Twilight of the Elites, Christopher Hayes laments that the same fate has befallen his alma mater, Hunter College High School, another single test New York City school considered elite, whose admissions is based solely on one test. Hayes describes that only 185 out of between 3000 and 4000 students citywide who score high enough on their fifth-grade standardized tests (a fair question to keep in mind: should a test 10 year-olds take be so significant?) to even qualify to take the entrance exam are admitted. Diversity has plummeted there as well. The entering 7th grade class was 18% black and Hispanic in 1995, only 4% in 2009.

If there in one educational idea that for the past decade plus has received support from across the entire political establishment, it is testing. Standardized state tests have been an obsession in public schools from the early grades through high school. Then there are the old stalwarts like the SAT and GRE which seem to always grow in significance. It is fair to say testing is everywhere.

It is quite easy to see how such an emphasis on test scores creates a perverse incentive to cheat. A 2010 op-ed in Stuyvesant’s own student newspaper gave an honest account of it. Titled ‘Why We Cheat’ it went beyond the obvious pressure of testing to a critique of the quality of education it leads to:

In its many forms, academic dishonesty is firmly entrenched in the culture of Stuyvesant High School. If you walk down any hallway in the building you are almost guaranteed to see students copying homework, sharing questions on tests or “loosely paraphrasing” another student’s work on lab…We are a school that puts more emphasis on the quantitative value of numbers and statistics than on the importance of learning and knowledge.  Busy work assignments asking students to perform onerous tasks, such copying down physics problems verbatim from a Regents review book, send a clear message that deep, conceptual understanding of material is worthless when compared to high scores on standardized tests.

This cuts both ways. In recent times teachers in Washington DC, California, Atlanta, and Chicago have been caught changing student answers after the fact to raise standardized test scores and thereby acquire bonuses or simple job safety. There is also the incentive for individual states, which are allowed by law to set their own standards, to dumb down those standards to improve test scores to meet government mandates. A study last year showed that 80% of New York City public high school graduates are not ready for college or successful careers, though the mayor and Department of Education have been praised for raising graduations ratings and expanding charter schools.

While cheating certainly equates to fraud, testing inevitably produces other industries that can be considered, if not outright fraudulent, at least somewhat shifty when seen in the big picture. The history of testing reveals its double edge sword. The supposed idea behind testing is they equalize opportunity. If the opportunity to take a test is available universally, intelligence will shine through eliminating ethnic, gender, and class distinctions. It wasn’t long ago when this had a refreshing ring to it.

In The Big Test, Nicholas Lemann explained that the originators of the testing regime, figures such as William Learned and Henry Chauncey, were interested in overthrowing the old New England WASP elite that dominated even the Ivy League before World War II. A far cry from an academic machine, Harvard and other leading universities were, in the words of Lemann, full of ‘rich heedless young men with servants whose lives revolved around parties and sports, not studying…pretty much anybody who went to one of those schools (New England boarding schools), and was not “a little slow”, and could pay tuition, could go to Harvard, or to Princeton, or to Yale.’ Customarily they did not attend classes, enrolling briefly in special tutoring schools at the end of every semester to be able to pass exams. Minorities were locked out by quotas, both official and unspoken.

If finding a new elite based on merit that transcended ethnicity and class was a noble cause, it is also worth noting the flip side that the founders of the testing regime weren’t at all interested with expanding educational opportunities to a greater number of people. They wanted students of merit but were convinced there were not too many people worthy of such distinction. Indeed even then they thought too many people were attending college (an even darker faction of early testing proponents, such as for a time Carl Campbell Brigham, chairman of the College Board Commission, were ardent eugenists who were just as keen to locate what they thought of as the bottom spectrum of humanity in order to isolate it or forcibly subject it to vasectomies).

While testing did become universal and mandatory, it is hard to argue that it has achieved fairness. There is the matter of the multi-million dollar test prep industry, not to mention high priced tutoring (and, of course, difference in school quality). For all the over-the-top boasting by such test-prep powerhouses such as Princeton Review (which had to cease making claims about average score gains after an investigation by the Council of Better Business Bureau’s Advertising Division, the result of a complaint filed by its rival Kaplan) there is evidence that test prep services increase scores. A study released in 2009 by the National Association for College Admission Counseling showed test prep courses do produce gains on the SAT; gains that while are relatively small yet could prove decisive for admissions to top schools. Not that the boasting or prices have died down. For example, all the test-prep company web pages are full of joyful testimonies and at Elite Academy in Queens (the motto there is ‘where the smart get smarter’) parents pay over $2500 for the 14 week Hunter test-prep package, $540 for a five day cram session.

Whether it is test-prep courses, private $80 per hour tutoring, or just different levels of classroom focus a question begs itself: how could a test measure pure intelligence if takers are allowed to prepare beforehand? Does this not taint the concept of ‘equality of opportunity’ by shifting success of tests to factors besides intelligence, including factors like family income that are completely out of the hands of students taking exams? Isn’t it also quite possible that some students are simply better test takers than others?

This critique can be taken a step further. If performing well on standardized tests enable students to enroll in top rated universities (rankings here usually being the annual U.S. News and World Report rankings, a ranking that some colleges and universities have shown a willingness to game by inflating average SAT scores of enrollees), what kind of education are they receiving? There are studies to suggest that it may be lacking. In Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, Richard Arum and Josipa Rokse find:

Growing numbers of students are sent to college at increasingly higher costs, but for a large proportion of them the gains in critical thinking, complex reasoning and written communication are either exceedingly small or empirically nonexistent…they might graduate, but they are failing to develop the higher-order cognitive skills that it is widely assumed college students should master.

Some specific findings include that full-time college students on average report spending only twenty-seven hours per week on academic activities (less than a high school student spends in school) and fifty percent of college students sampled in the study reported that they had not taken a single course during the prior semester that required more than twenty pages of writing, one-third had not taken one that required forty pages of reading per week.

The authors cite a number of reasons for this: less tenured, full-time professors, more adjuncts, faculty more interested in research than instruction, expanding administrations concerned primarily with the bottom line, students needing to work longer hours at jobs to pay always higher tuition (the student debt explosion has been well documented).

A more intriguing reason given is the spreading idea of students as paying customers in an education market. If students are seen as paying customers who give professors evaluations at the end of each semester, might there be a subconscious understanding that allegedly favors both parties. It is what higher education researcher Geoege Kuh calls a “disengagement compact”. Teachers get good evaluations and time for research, students get degrees and high GPAs.

If there is merit to this idea, than one may again detect the influence of testing. After all, if the main hurdles are to ace the right tests to get into high schools and colleges, would that not allow a sense of entitlement to creep in once those goals are achieved?

Why the long rant one might ask? If education boils down to a shallow exercise in resume building, what is the big issue? It is a safe bet that students from higher ranked high schools have a clearer route to top ranked colleges and from there the inside track in the job market early in their careers (if not later). In that case, who’s to judge anyone who eagerly dives into the testing rat race?

Well, putting aside for the moment the quality of education the system produces (it is well known by now that U.S. students have fallen behind many other nations in science and math) there are just too many legitimate questions as to the nature of intelligence, even its very definition, to start dividing children into different groups from such an early age. It seems wrong even on the face of it that anyone should look back at their life and decide that tests taken at ages like 10 or 12 should have been milestones of life one way or another. Plus it shouldn’t be overlooked for a moment that tests geared toward intelligence won’t find things like humor, wisdom, patience, toughness, empathy, and originality, surely qualities that often lead to success.

Most importantly there are such things as civics and citizenship. As much as the founders of the testing regime sought to limit higher education to the elite they sought, Harvard president, James Bryant Conant, for one saw this elite as made up of a kind of modern-day ‘guardians’ class described by Plato in The Republic: selfless, committed to the greater good, uninterested in monetary gain. Alas, while it probably is naïve to even conceive such a thing, no one would say it has come to pass. There is no question that competition produces many economic benefits from dynamism to efficiency to lower prices. However it is questionable whether subjecting younger children to its bite is ultimately beneficial. Far from the alleged best and brightest being productive, concerned citizens, the end result may be an incompetent, entitled, gluttonous, indifferent elite unable to solve crises while at the same time excelling at producing them.

Could such describe the current elite of the United States?

Joseph Grosso is a writer and librarian in New York City and is the author of Emerald City: How Capital Transformed New York Read other articles by Joseph.