I’ve always enjoyed the writing of Victor Davis Hanson. In fact, he encouraged me—not personally—to become a blogger. His work was not my only encouragement, because being a writer, I need to write, but it was a factor. But of course, one need not agree with everything another writes or thinks in order to admire their work. I don’t for a moment think everyone reading this scruffy little blog buys everything I have to say, and that’s just fine. But of course, it’s always wise to keep in mind everyone is entitled to my opinion…
What occasions this little missive is a recent article by Hanson on reforming colleges in the coming Age of Trump. It’s an issue I addressed by back in March of 2016, but worthy of an update. One of the contradictions of conservatism has come to be testing mania. On one hand, conservatism is very much for federalism—state’s rights. The states, and local government particularly, should be left alone to engage in the laboratory of democracy. Communities, not state or federal bureaucracies, are best suited to know what their residents desire and need in K-12 education.
Many conservatives would abolish the federal Department of Education without a second’s thought. I am among them. If the DOE disappeared tomorrow, it would have no effect on my students or me at all, other than removing many layers of unnecessary and expensive regulations. On second thought, that’s a significant effect. What about all the money the DOE hands out? Perhaps it’s time to learn to get by without federal money, which always comes with significant strings, turning local schools into puppets of the Beltway. In any case, there are plenty of government bureaus that disperse pork. A bit of dispersal shifting among them would help to keep the federal pork train on the tracks rather than running amok throughout the country.
Despite being for federalism, conservatives have taken up the banner of mandated testing, utterly abandoning one of their guiding principles in favor for forcing schools throughout the nation to relentlessly test children, not once, but many times throughout their K-12 years. As regular readers know, this has been disastrous for learning, producing children in the 11th and 12th grades who have no interest in reading, who have never read an entire book, who are capable only of reading short passages of literature and gleaning a few obvious facts from them, and who lack much of the basic knowledge and ability those of a pre-testing era took for granted. They can, for the most part, produce only short writings in response to a simple prompt, devoid of imagination, style and depth of thought.
To be sure, some kids are smarter and more capable. Regardless of the faddish idiocy to which they are exposed by adult bureaucrats and “educators,” some kids will always do well because they are self-motivated and wired to enjoy learning. There are not—and this is a fundamental element of human nature—many of them. Some few are truly excellent, a somewhat larger number are plainly stupid–for a variety of reasons–and the rest fall somewhere in between. That’s what “average” means.
Now, sadly, Hanson is advocating for federally mandated exit testing for colleges:
In our regulated society, almost everyone, from hair stylists to florists to dog groomers, has to take some sort of test to prove competency. Government-subsidized colleges that grant B.A.s are the exception. Their effectiveness is less audited than is the performance of ceiling fans.
Again, how bizarre that colleges audit high-school diplomas by giving college-entrance tests (their theory being that straight A’s from Selma High school in California’s Central Valley are not comparable to straight A’s at the Menlo School in the Silicon Valley), but the schools themselves are not audited. Surely higher education would not object to a national college-exit exam as a requirement for receiving a bachelor’s degree. Call it a smaller version of the bar exam, or perhaps a reverse SAT or ACT test.
Passing an exit exam would help ensure education consumers that tens of thousands of dollars in borrowed money, per student, at least led to quantifiable or demonstrable knowledge on a nationally shared basis, necessary for an informed, participatory citizenry.
Comparative pass rates also might inform parents whether sending children to Stanford really does guarantee liberal education in a way that a B.A. from nearby less expensive San Jose State University might not.
Hanson suggests an “accountability” movement on steroids, such steroids to be dispensed and regulated by the federal government. Perhaps we’ll need an entirely new, cabinet-level Department of Mandatory Testing and Accountability to ensure accountability, and testing? How else can anyone know that a given school is teaching–and testing–effectively? How could anyone have known that before the advent of high stakes, mandatory testing?
Consider that all a single test can do is produce one score, which potentially indicates nothing more than how that person did on that test on that day. Long time readers may recall my experience with this from the past:
When I graduated from college back in the 1400s with high honors, I was required to take an exit exam. If memory serves, it was a national educator’s exam. I passed the exam, but scored better, I think by about 6 points, in math than English. I’m rather good at English, and that was my major area of study. Math, not so much. My college math courses were fresh in my mind, which no doubt helped, but I was born without the math gene. I do not behold equations and perceive the beauty and order of the universe. Any potential employer reading those scores would have been encouraged to believe I was much better at math than my chosen field, and they would have been disastrously wrong. If required to take a high school level math exit test today, I would disastrously fail. I would not fail due to a lack of intelligence, but because I am so far out of practice in general, and have no idea what to expect of a contemporary math test of that kind.
Oh yes, gentle readers, teaching to the test is what education is all about these days, for the only thing that truly matters is test results.
College is substantially different than K-12 education. Students are paying for a product. There can be little doubt many colleges are little more than diploma mills, and few, if any will ever be denied a diploma as long as their checks cash. They are, in effect, a business relationship. The college provides their product, the students pay for it–and in some places dictate the curriculum–and if all elements of the contract are fulfilled, the ultimate product—a diploma—is issued.
Oh, but the public pays for it in the form of government loans! This argument is strong these days because Barack Obama federalized the entire student loan industry, but ultimately, each student is responsible for paying those loans–or not. All of this is another can of particularly nasty worms entirely, but the business relationship between student and college remains.
Mandating college exit exams would do to “higher” education what they have done to K-12 education: turned learning into test drills and greatly enriched the companies like Pearson writing the tests and producing study materials for passing them. This choice of what matters in education commonly obliterates 33% and more of any curriculum in favor of test drills. There is no way to recover, not only that specific lost knowledge, but the neural development that will never take place, the neural development lacking in a generation of tested-to-near-death new teachers.
The idea that test scores will allow parents, businesses and politicians to judge the relative worth of colleges and their graduates is nonsense. They primarily indicate which schools are willing to abandon learning, spending huge amounts of time on test drills aimed at producing passing—at the least—and relatively high scores on the tests. Inevitably, tests drive curriculum, and actual learning is abandoned. Performance on the tests is rewarded financially, politically and professionally. Providing the best possible educational opportunity for students is not.
How then can parents, businesses and politicians know if they are getting their money’s worth? The way they did before the advent of testing insanity in the 1980s: by paying attention. By actually spending a bit of time reading course catalogs, perhaps even sitting in on a class or two. One need not be Sherlock Holmes to determine that a great many disciplines in the modern university are nothing more advanced than self-referential navel gazing.
One must also be careful of painting every college with the same brush. There are many colleges and universities that still see themselves as colleges and universities, not remedial high schools where oh-so-special snowflake students must be provided Play Dough and Legos, and given safe spaces to ameliorate every potential stressor. Anyone willing to spend a bit of time can determine which is which. Tests will not provide that information, nor information in any depth.
But what if a student can’t pass an exit exam? What of it? We assume such tests are valid and predictive, that the results they provide are meaningful and tell us useful things about a wide variety of topics, and provide the basis for educational policies on a national level. Just ask the companies that make billions producing the tests, they’ll be happy to fill you in on their perfection. The truth is–and the testing companies will not tell you this–they don’t. They can’t. A student scoring poorly or failing such a test may indicate nothing more than that they were, for a variety of reasons, not up to test taking that day. Or, as in my case, that they were current enough in math, and sufficiently skilled as a student, to obtain entirely misleading test results.
And what do we do with students required to discourse on Shakespeare, or European history prior to 1900, or American history in general in universities that no longer require Shakespeare, European or American history? The problems of the modern university cannot be diagnosed or solved by mandatory exit exams, particularly those mandated by the federal government.
It’s easy, though, to understand the impulse. Once such tests are mandated, they require virtually no individual, continuing effort on the part of those politicians mandating or implementing them. The involved politicians can pound the tabletop and proclaim they’re doing something about education. Why, they’ve accomplished real education reform, which everyone knows is desperately needed in every school in the nation.
Private companies write the tests, grade them, disseminate the scores—though they, more often than they’ll ever admit, do that badly—and collect billions in taxpayer funds. Politicians can quickly read score summaries and pontificate to their heart’s desire in ways that support their political philosophies and goals. It’s easy indeed to spend other people’s money, and easier still to deny young people a competent education in the name of accountability.
What’s takes real work is looking into colleges and ensuring one is going to get what they pay for. That may require choosing a discipline that will provide a significant possibility of a well-paying job. Women’s studies, LGBTQWERTY studies, black studies, and similarly quixotic pursuits do not qualify, and the test scores of such graduates may–or may not–tell us far more about the degradation of the modern university—perhaps even society in general–than the intellects of their graduates. After all, if such tests are written to reflect the orthodoxy of “studies” disciplines, the test scores may be brilliant indeed.Victor Davis Hanson
Ultimately, it comes down to which principle matters most: genuine conservatism that abhors big government and federal mandates, or reliance on multinational educational conglomerates, the only entities that unquestionably profit—and profit big—from mandatory testing.