"Meeting the Standards Will Not Guarantee Success"


Arnold Packer, SCANS 2000 Center,
The Johns Hopkins University
The High School Assessments Forum
Tuesday, October 21, 2003
Oakland Mills Interfaith Center

 

Thank you for the opportunity to come here today.

Hopkins, of course, is both a university and a hospital. Hopkins professors, it is rumored, show that they are "rigorous" by starting out the semester saying "Look to the left of you and look to the right, one of you three will flunk." Somehow the surgeons at Hopkins don't say that to their patients.

As you consider high stakes tests think about the difference between the medical and education models. Few of us cheat on our EKG. Why, because we believe that the doctor will give us something to fix the problem, not hold us back to give us more of the same treatment that has not worked before.

Or take the case of successful programs like Weight Watchers. How many of you here are familiar with them? That organization uses tests - stepping on the scale - productively. There are rewards for staying within the desired weight range and penalties for straying. But it is a goal that is mutually set, not imposed, and they are there to help if you stray from the range. My wife also went to Smoke enders with its constant monitoring - quick, obvious, and tied to goals established by the client. (My wife had a lot of bad habits - I don't need to join any organizations - she gives me instantaneous and constant feedback on mine.)

The standards movement came out of concern for the performance of students in places like Baltimore. Perhaps these are not the concerns of Howard County. You may be more interested in what the standards are doing to the education of the good students. Let us start from the goals of education. What are the goals for all students?

There are four:
1. Satisfying careers. This is the reason students hear, from their parents and others, for graduating high school and going to college. Careers are surely the reason math is given precedence over, say, art or philosophy.
2. Participating citizenship -- from school board meetings to voting. Unfortunately, geometry and trigonometry does little to help. Understanding the school district, or federal government, budget does.
3. Personal and interpersonal development - Art and literature are often a better way to reach these goals than mathematics.
4. Lifelong learning. For high school kids in Howard County, college is the most immediate manifestation of lifelong learning. Are more of them eager to take a course in calculus? Or, are they looking for the easiest way to satisfy their math requirement when they get to college? When they graduate, how many will pick up a math book for reading on the plane? How many of you have kept up your trigonometry skills?

Obviously, I have been thinking about high school math. Math has been very important to me. I have been a practicing engineer and an economist. I deplore the current state of math education and the results it has produced. Lots of 17 year olds can only do the most basic math and too many adults are "math-phobic." Many would rather take a beating than another math course. Unfortunately, the math at work looks very little like the math in class.

Students - and other humans -- don't transfer learning very well. Learning how to prove geometric theorems does not make one a good financial analyst. Mental calisthenics don't work. For work, one needs to know how to plan budgets, schedules and the like and read statistics. One doesn't factor polynomials.

The Maryland math exams are more "relevant" than many others I have seen. But they have been deeply criticized as not sufficiently rigorous by college math teachers. I am not sure about the rigor but have to wonder about the relevance.

Look at some of the math questions on the Maryland exam. One asks the student to identify the graph of two equations: (y=-3x + 2, y = 2x-3). Another problem is 16x(sq)+28x -36 represent the perimeter of a square - huh! Has anyone ever seen a square like that? Another has to do with the diagonals of a rhombus - I was an engineer and never saw a rhombus - I can't even dance to it. A group is ready to embark on setting "Standards and Assessments for Quantitative Literacy." They are likely to be more useful because most of us need that literacy - not calculus.

Take a serious look at Maryland's educational strategy of "setting standards and testing to them." It needs to be re-examined before damage is done. The first serious mistake is to set standards around courses - like math or science - rather than around goals like successful careers. We need to ask whether meeting the standards will increase the chances of, let alone guaranteeing, success.

The current difficult job market should cause educators to think hard about what is needed for success. Where is the economy going to go during the working life of current teenagers? That is a difficult question but two things seem quite likely. First, jobs that can be exported to other countries with lower wages will be. Second, jobs that can be reduced to a computer will not be done by decently paid Americans.

The 21st Century will see more and more routine work (what might be called algorithmic work) transferred to computers. Learning how to do algorithms will not help as much as learning to be creative problem solvers, collaborative team players, effective communicators, and lifelong learners. Will the proposed math assessment help or hinder students in obtaining these valued skills and behaviors?

Are the tasks being tested likely to show up in the workplace of the future or are they more likely to be candidates for export or transfer to a computer? Too often they are. Moreover, they are squeezing out the abilities needed for success. A recent study by Accenture, the consulting company, found employers want those who can make decisions, work cross-functionally, focus on customers, and manage projects. Do the tests support being able to do this? I doubt it - high school algebra is about airplanes crossing in the night. Budget and schedules and other skills needed to manage a project are more likely to be taught and tested in Quantitative Literacy.

A second strategic mistake is to assume all kids are alike and the same set of standards fit all. The standards folk mistakenly translate "all children can learn" (which they can) into "all kinds are alike" and should pass the same tests. But almost all of us have a weakness - mine is foreign languages. I spent more time and energy learning enough Spanish in high school to pass than on all my other courses put together. And I still can't speak Spanish. I would have benefited by taking more math, or public speaking.

Our daughter is a psychiatrist. Recently, she did take a course in public speaking. The instructor asked the assembled psychiatrists how many spoke in public as part of their job. Most did. The instructor then asked how many had been taught public speaking. Few had. Why not?

Students have limited time, resources, talent, and motivation. So do teachers. Policymakers should tell us what high school has to give up by teaching more math. More "rigorous" math means less rigorous something else - maybe the something else would further the four goals I mentioned before. Some aspiring politicians or business executives might benefit more from a philosophy course in ethics than from trigonometry.

Or, passing the math test may take away from art lessons. Ford is in trouble because the "design" of the Taurus no longer attracts. I once talked to a group of senior executives assembled for a conference assembled by Business Week. I asked the group who had used calculus in the last 90 days. Only one person raised his hand. I asked how many had made an important decision about their firm based on aesthetics. About 2/3 raised their hands. More art and less math would have served this group better.

Right now, researchers at Arizona University says no and Stanford says yes as to whether high stakes makes for more learning in terms of better test scores. But better test scores are not what are wanted. What is wanted is more productive workers, more informed citizens, more lifelong learning, and more developed human beings. You have to look beyond the exams and their results to determine if they will do more harm than good. Do good test scores signify success after graduation?

Educators, parents, and students need data on learning. But need it be so costly to everyone? What about the students who fail the tests? Yesterday's NY Times carried an article by Bob Herbert entitled "Locked Out at a Young Age," describing the situation in Chicago. "The city's dropout rate is reportedly at an all-time high. And 22 percent of all Chicago residents between the ages of 16 and 24 are both out of school and out of work," he says. The article continues: "An incredible 45 percent of black men in Chicago aged 20 to 24 are out of work and out of school.

'Failure to complete high school is almost equivalent to economic suicide,'… said the co-author of the study on education and the youth labor market in Illinois. There are nearly 100,000 people aged 16 to 24 who are out of school and out of work in Chicago, and about 5.5 million across the U.S. Instead of sending them a lifeline, we are making it ever more difficult for them to reconnect to the educational establishment and the job market. The recent increased federal involvement in the nation's public schools is having the perverse effect of driving up dropout rates as school administrators try to pump up their high-stakes test results by getting rid of struggling students."

Teachers are the most important educational resource. Will good teachers quit because test preparation is not what they signed up to do. Does school become even more boring? Do students say when they finish their last required math or history or English course I can't wait to take another one? Or do they say, I will never take another one. In a recent poll, more than 70% of high school students agreed or strongly agreed that most schoolwork is "busywork." Will more testing increase or decrease that number? The answer, of course, depends on the test.

I agree with many of the arguments for standards:
1. Taxpayers, parents, and students need to know how the students are doing.
2. Those who spend public dollars should be held accountable.
3. The "soft bigotry" of low expectations is destructive.
4. Students need to be "pushed" to work.
5. Success in the 21st Century will require more brain power.

I also share the hope of those who advocate standards; namely that identifying poorly performing schools will produce more money, more parent involvement, and such. Schools in poor neighborhoods are too often poor schools operating in old buildings with the least qualified teachers (as teachers with seniority move elsewhere.)

Let me summarize: accountability is needed, students need to be pushed, and low expectations are unhealthy. But these views do not automatically lead to more standardized tests as requirements for graduation. Policymakers need to think of the future demands for careers and citizenship. I put the following to the head of testing for NY State: "In Baltimore, we have students who speak so poorly that they will find it difficult to get a good job. That skill is more important than whether they know about a rhombus." He did not disagree but said: "We can easily test whether they know about a rhombus - not whether they can talk to a customer."

His response reminded me of the story about the drunk looking for his lost key under a street light. His friends join him in his search. After a fruitless hunt, they asked: "Are you sure you lost it here?" "No," he replied, "I lost it over there," pointing to the dark hedge where he had dropped it, "but the light is so much better here." The risk in education comes from standardized tests where the data can have blind spots for important learning.