Thursday, December 8, 2011

School board member took state high school exams...

The media has been all over this story of late, where a school board member from Florida, Rick Roach, took standardized 10th grade level reading and math exams, and fared remarkably poorly. If you haven't read it, see this from Huffington Post.

The things that chagrin me about this whole brouhaha are the conclusions people are coming to, with not a single practical suggestion as an alternative.

Let's look at this objectively - yes, the tenth grade math exams test relatively arcane knowledge. The average person has no reason to use his knowledge of trigonometry in day to day life. But to conclude from that "A test that can determine a student's future life chances should surely relate in some practical way to the requirements of life." is not quite getting at the heart of the issue, in my humble opinion.

It instantly begs the question in my mind at least, requirements of whose life? Yes, if the student were to follow in Mr. Roach's footsteps, whose life by all measures is successful, the test is excessive. But what if the student aspires to something different, and wants to keep the doors open to a different career? Perhaps he aspires to go to college and major in something that will guarantee him employment that pays north of $75,000 per year? Perhaps he aspires for a job that won't be taken away by the next person willing to work for a lot less, or a machine that can outwork him 1000x?

If we were to shortlist the number of career options that would provide that kind of salary, a large percentage of them require proficiency in science and higher level math. If we want students to pursue STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) fields in college, it follows that we need to hold them to higher math standards. If we are to dumb down the baseline because "most" people don't use that level of math, what options do we have?

We can try the European/Asian approach to specialization - kids as young as 11 are slotted into an "university track" and "vocational track". Only the kids in the university track get to take advanced math. The rest take the basic math that Mr. Roach and his supporters are suggesting is most relevant.

I am told that in Singapore, kids at the Sixth grade level are made to take exams which will determine their track. In the Netherlands, 11 year olds take exams that slot them into "workers", "technicians" and "academics". In Germany, kids are slotted when they are in FOURTH grade! What next? We will categorize people when they're born into what professions they can enter? Hello caste system! Wait, haven't people been trying to abolish caste system for a while now and the inequities it promotes?

Frankly, I'd rather have students who are over educated in math than suffer the major inequities that arise from this early, forced and artificial sorting.

Yes, I have never once had an opportunity to apply the Riemer-Tiemann equation since I graduated from high school, derive Maxwell's equations from scratch, or apply vector calculus when I visit the grocery store. I suppose you might consider that a waste. But notice that the "waste" doesn't hurt me. If you stop me and ask me to derive Maxwell's equations on my way to the grocery store, I might have to give you a rain check till I refresh my memory courtesy Google. I will then gladly sit down to explain it to you. You might even be sufficiently impressed to offer me a six figure job. Whereas, the student who was offered the lowest common denominator education is *permanently* shut out of opportunities and high paying jobs. That's unfair. I would much rather raise the bar for everyone, than to dumb it down to the lowest common denominator for everyone. If you reach for the stars, maybe you will land on the moon...

My reaction to those who oppose standardized testing is similar. Ok, I see your point, but what is the alternative to fairly compare different students if you want to offer them a limited opportunity, be it a job or a college education? Until the critics come up with a better alternative to either issue, criticizing what exists is moot.


TMLutas said...

There is an opportunity cost to any education. You can make very good money in high skilled vocations that are less likely to be outsourced than a lot of white collar office work. You also get into the work force earlier, driving up your lifetime earning potential. The US is currently undergoing a bad and worsening shortage in these high skill blue collar positions.

How do we cure that shortage without starting to slot ambitious kids into the apprenticeships that yield those $75k blue collar jobs? I don't think you can.

Shuba Swaminathan said...

That goes to my point that it's better to be over-educated than under... I imagine even the highly skilled blue collar jobs you refer to would prefer someone who's a high school graduate.

Or, are you saying that even completing high school counts towards the opportunity cost of education?

I am opposed to artificially enforced sorting of any kind. Let school education till high school be a solid platform that offers equal opportunities to launch someone in whichever direction they choose. Let the platform set the baseline at a high enough level so that even if the safety net breaks, people don't fall too far. Let everyone have a minimum education that will allow them to retrain and change directions if that's what it takes to get back on their feet.

If standards are dumbed down, I fear the retraining will be near impossible for well paying professions of the future.