The Testing Mania

Oct. 20, 2005
Something is terribly wrong with our educational establishment, and I am not talking about standards or the curriculum.
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Khol editorials

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The thing perplexing me is how the mania for testing has been imposed on school systems.

I had to take a few standardized tests in high school, but they weren't traumatic life-or-death experiences. Neither were they horrendous ordeals required to get accepted at a college, and I ended up getting accepted at a highly selective university. I applied to several schools, and on the applications I never had to write an essay, demonstrate a history of community service, or prove that I had in any way benefited humanity. My final choice was a school about 100 miles away, and the face-to-face interview was a cursory thing done by a local alumnus who took 5 minutes out of a busy workday to see me. Today, in contrast, the process is so complex it is nothing short of cruel.

Despite all this, I suspect that standards years ago were higher than they are today. It was up to individual teachers in junior and senior high school to pass or fail students in specific subjects based on classroom performance. And nobody secondguessed them. Flunking was bad because we had to maintain a rigid academic track with essentially zero leeway. Failing a subject meant you had to make it up by going to summer school or risk not graduating with your class.

Colleges were easy to get into if you had a decent high-school record. Even at toptier schools, there was a buyer's market. College tuition was cash on the barrelhead, with no student loans nor government grants. Scholarships were confined to athletic or academic ability. A hard-luck story about your family finances counted for nothing.

That helped weed out students, yet the system wasn't as elitist as it sounds. My observation was that there usually was a strong correlation between an inability to pay tuition and a poor high-school academic record. Most people qualified to attend college were able to go.

Without the huge amount of federal and state money being thrown at colleges as we see today, tuition was reasonable. Schools had to conform to the law of supply and demand, where demand was highly price sensitive. Even at selective prestigious private colleges, annual tuition costs were roughly about $6,400 in today's dollars. That is about one-third the cost of a low-priced car. Today, annual tuition at an equivalent school costs as much as a luxury automobile. State schools were much cheaper, with tuition being almost incidental to the budget of a middle-class household.

It was almost unheard of to have remedial courses in college. If high school didn't prepare you for college, you flunked out. Almost everyone graduated in four years. All of this further helped suppress tuition costs. Students who couldn't afford even bare-bones tuition had the option of working during the day and going to college in the evening. If all else failed, they could go into the military and then attend college on the GI bill.

Back then, you could assume anyone with a college degree was well educated. That is a rash assumption today. In my opinion, the math, chemistry, physics, history, English, and foreign-language curriculum I had in high school (including two years of Latin) was tougher than the course of study in most liberal-arts colleges today.

Where did it all go wrong? What we have now is the consequence of putting schooling in the hands of career administrators and tenured professors, and then caving in to the entire ethic of professional educators. Also exacerbating the problem is an outrageous cost inflation driven by the financial subsidies going to colleges and universities. The educational establishment has developed a voracious appetite for money, and there is no satiating it. But with academic standards in high schools dropping so low, I suppose it was inevitable that draconian life-or-death testing would become the standard for evaluating students.

-- Ronald Khol, Editor
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