the educational standardization trap

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The following essay is adapted from my forthcoming book, The Cult of Smart: How Our Broken Educational System Perpetuates Social Injustice. Pre-order it from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or wherever books are sold.

Over the past several decades, the American educational system has seen a broad embrace of more and stricter standards. Variation and flexibility in curricula have been driven out in favor of uniformity in both the courses students are expected to take and how well they are expected to perform within them. This push to standardize has been going on at the local and state levels for a long time; since 2010, the action has happened at the national level, as the (in)famous Common Core is now enshrined in 41 states as well as several U.S. territories. (Among the nine states that do not use the Core standards, three adopted them only to later rescind their adoption, largely because the effort was perceived as an attempt by liberals to supersede state sovereignty.)

The basic argument for standardization is fairly simple. First, the essential conception of a liberal education presumes a certain breadth of knowledge, a diversity in the knowledge, skills, and competencies that all students should learn regardless of their eventual academic or professional focus. By enforcing a standardized curriculum, policymakers can presumably ensure that students are well-rounded as intellectuals. More importantly, if less often discussed, there is the relationship between standardization and the assessment of students . . . and teachers. In order to know how well different groups of students are performing, we need to be able to make comparisons among them, which in turn requires a degree of standardization in what they’re learning. And since assessment of student learning has long since ceased to be about students and become instead another system of surveillance for teachers, standards like the Common Core have been favorites of the ed reformers who blame teachers for everything.

There’s certainly nothing wrong with expecting that all students who graduate from a given school, system, or state have somewhat equivalent academic abilities. So what’s the problem? To put it simply, students are not standardized. Their minds are not standardized. Their abilities are not standardized. Their ambitions are not standardized. Expecting to take the vast diversity of human academic experience and force it into a Procrustean box is a recipe for unhappiness. Education reformers love to talk about dynamism and innovation, yet they frequently push for standards that ensure education will involve anything but. And the consequences are clear.

Perhaps the most glaring example of an arbitrary standard resulting in misery lies in national standards for high school algebra. In his 2016 book The Math Myth, Andrew Hacker goes to great lengths to demonstrate how the hurdle of passing algebra sets many high school students on the road to failure. Hacker makes a compelling case that failing algebra is a key step in the path to dropping out. He cites researchers from Johns Hopkins University who found that “failing ninth-grade algebra is the reason many students are left back in ninth grade, which in turn is the greatest risk factor for dropping out.”[i]

Hacker cites statistic after statistic that shows students failing algebra and other math classes at alarming rates. And note that grades are always subject to the good will of teachers, many of whom will pass failing students so that they won’t fall behind their peers and suffer socially. The term for this is social promotion, and as long as teachers are forced to choose between strict and arbitrary standards and the benefit of the students they care for, it will remain a fact of life.

What happens to math scores in standardized testing situations, where teachers do not have the ability to promote socially? The situation is, if anything, even more stark. Hacker writes,

failure rates for mathematics were arresting. In Minnesota, 43 percent of students taking the mathematics test didn’t pass. In Nevada, it was 57 percent; Washington, 61 percent; Arizona, 64 percent. And these are the students who, at least until the test, had made it to their senior year.[ii]

The news is rosier elsewhere. Take here in New York, where in 2016 the passing rate for the Regents Examination in Algebra I test was 72 percent.[iii] Unfortunately, this (relatively) higher rate of success does not indicate some sort of revolutionary pedagogy on the part of New York state educators. As the New York Post complained in 2017, passing rates were so high in large measure because the cutoff for passing was absurdly low — so low that students needed only to answer 31.4 percent of the questions correctly to pass the 2017 exam.

Is this necessarily a bad thing? Certainly the “no excuses” school of education reform would see it as a failure, a refusal to enforce the kind of standards that, they imagine, are necessary to prepare students for the college level and then the working world. But these self-same people also complain about low passing rates on such exams and poor graduation rates as well. The question we have to ask ourselves is whether we have to choose one or the other, and if we do, which ultimately should we choose? This basic conflict lurks in the background of all of our educational debates. Colleges are criticized simultaneously for grade inflation (a loosening of standards) and for low graduation rates (students failing to meet standards). What if we are forced to pick either standards or graduation? The national education debate is remarkably quiet on this elementary question.

We’ve seen a rise in high school graduation rates in the past decade, reaching all-time highs in the past several years. Better than eight out of ten entering students can now be expected to graduate from high school.[iv] Yet for many, this speaks not to a salutary improvement in the quality of education but to a tacit decision to simply let more students through the gates. As mentioned earlier, recent pieces from the conservative think tank the Heritage Foundation, the New York Times, Forbes, and the Washington Post, among others, have suggested that our rising high school graduation rates are not justified given stagnant test scores. It strikes me that there is an obvious lesson here: to get students through high school, we should loosen standards. We should continue to offer advanced math classes to the students who want to take them, but excuse most students from an onerous standard that does little but push them out of formal education for good.

If you believe in the myth of total educational plasticity, that any student can reach any level of performance in any subject, then you can continue to argue for both higher standards and better performance. If you are ready to leave that pleasant myth behind, I argue that you should accept lower standards in order to keep more students in the system and to spare those who will never meet the more rigorous standards from the frustration and humiliation of failure.

The story is harder to parse on the college level, where we have less systematically gathered data available than we do with public high schools. But my best read of the available evidence is that the situation is similar in college, and onerous general education standards — that is, standards that must be met by all students, regardless of major — frequently lead to failing grades and ultimately dropouts. Take the City University of New York, my former employer. A somewhat notorious 2012 internal study found that startling numbers of students failed their required general education algebra class.[v] Failure on this level is not unheard of at schools like CUNY, a system with both students who are competitive with students from the best schools in the world and students who lack basic literacy and numeracy skills. (This is not a condition to lament; serving a broad swath of students, diverse in both demographics and academics, is central to CUNY’s function.) So: what do we do about this barrier to student success?

A profoundly useful and high-quality study gives us a hint. Three CUNY researchers, A. W. Logue, Mari Watanabe-Rose, and Daniel Douglas, explored whether student success rates in math could be improved with additional support or though course substitution — that is, taking a class other than the ordinarily required math course. Participants took either a regular remedial algebra class, the same class with a required support workshop (an idea often floated as a remediation tool), or a statistics class that replaced algebra entirely. The study was a true randomized experiment, which tracked not only students who took part in the study but also those who declined and were sorted into regular algebra classes, leading to an unusual degree of confidence in the study’s results. The authors found that the support workshops seemed to do nothing to improve passing rates, but that students selected into the statistics course passed at a rate 16 percent higher than students in the algebra class.[vi]

I once talked to a colleague about this remediation research. He grumbled that the improvement in passing rates simply reflected the relative difficulty of the classes. “They’re just giving students an easier class to pass,” he grumbled to me. To which I say, precisely. That is precisely what they did, and precisely what they should do. Low passing rates cause harm. They result in students paying for credits that then do not bring them any closer to graduation. They often lead to dropouts. They are a barrier to success. So why not remove the barrier?

Does this mean that we should drop numeracy from high school or college curricula entirely? No. To simply excuse students from any quantitative learning would be doing them a disservice. But we should be vastly more flexibility in our definition of what quantitative literacy means. Substituting statistics for algebra is a good start; statistics, after all, are applied mathematics, and are from my vantage point far more likely to be of real-world use than algebra. A course in Excel or database management software would entail mathematical reasoning without the onerous difficulties so many students encounter in algebra or geometry, to say nothing of calculus.

Hacker makes an extensive case against compulsory instruction in abstract math in the Math Myth, and I will not rehash those arguments here. I understand that mathematics are absolutely central to human technological progress. But it does not follow that, because they are important to us as a species, everyone should have to learn them. That bad reasoning is similar to the thinking that led us to the myth of the STEM shortage. (No, really: there is not and has never been a STEM shortage.[vii]) “This area of human intellectual enterprise is important, therefore it is something everyone should do” is simply faulty logic. Instead of specific requirements for courses like algebra or trigonometry, states, high schools, and universities should offer broad content areas that can be satisfied with a number of different courses. Flexibility and accommodation should be the norm in the paths students take through formal education.

Of course, in the era of the Common Core and tightening standards from regional accreditation agencies, we’re sprinting in the opposite direction.

[i] Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, “Locating the Dropout Crisis. Which High Schools Produce the Nation’s Dropouts? Where Are They Located? Who Attends Them? Report 70,” Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk (CRESPAR), 2004.

[ii] Andrew Hacker, The Math Myth: And Other STEM Delusions (New York: The New Press, 2016), 16.

[iii] Susan Edelman, “Regents Math Test Is Easier to Pass — Thanks to Low Standards,” New York Post, June 25, 2017, https://nypost.com/2017/06/25/students-taking-regents-math-test-only-needed-score-of-32-to-pass/.

[iv] “Public High School Graduation Rates,” National Center for Educational Statistics, May 2018, https://nces.ed.gov/programs/coe/indicator_coi.asp.

[v] “Improving Undergraduate Mathematics Learning,” Office of Academic Affairs, City University of New York, 2012. https://www.cuny.edu/news/publications/imp.pdf

[vi] Alexandra W. Logue, Mari Watanabe-Rose, and Daniel Douglas, “Should Students Assessed as Needing Remedial Mathematics Take College-Level Quantitative Courses Instead? A Randomized Controlled Trial,” Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis 38, no. 3 (2016): 578–598.

[vii] Hal Salzman, Daniel Kuehn, and B. Lindsay Lowell, “Guestworkers in the High-Skill US Labor Market: An Analysis of Supply, Employment, and Wage Trends,” Economic Policy Institute, April 24, 2013, https://www.epi.org/publication/bp359-guestworkers-high-skill-labor-market-analysis/, accessed August 5, 2019.

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