Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Well, At Least They're Not Stupid

Slate has an interesting take on the standardized testing phenomenon that has overtaken the nation's education system.
If you believe in test scores—and education policymakers seem to believe in little else these days—American high-school students are a pathetic bunch. Witness the results of National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP)—the "nation's report card"—which were released last month. While younger students broke records in both math and reading, 17-year olds' scores as a whole showed no improvement from the early 1970s.

Older students fail globally, too. When high-school seniors were last ranked internationally, in 1995, American students placed at the bottom, trounced by kids from countries like Slovenia and Cyprus. U.S. high-school sophomores have continued to sit international exams every three years, and their performance hasn't been much better. On the 2003 global exam that evaluates the reading, math, science, and problem-solving skills of 15-year-olds, for example, the Americans scored below average in every category except reading literacy.

You could conclude from these exams that American high-schoolers are ill-taught and ill-prepared for the competitive global economy. But what if you look at these tests like a capitalist rather than an educator? Nothing is at stake for kids when they take the international exams and the NAEP. Students don't even learn how they scored. And that probably affects their performance. American teenagers, in other words, may not be stupid. It could be that when they have nothing to gain (or lose), they're lazy.
Put yourself in the shoes of these teenagers: After more than a decade of filling out multiple-choice bubbles where a lot is at stake, it is not surprising that some of them don't apply themselves on an exam that generally comes in the second half of their senior year—a test that has no bearing on which college will accept them, what kind of job they can land, or if they'll earn a high-school diploma. Face it: You'd probably be tempted to skip school that day—or, at the very least, leave a couple of the essay questions blank.


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