Thursday, January 15, 2004


Standardized Testing, College Admissions

Kimberly Swygert, as usual, provides an insightful critique of an open letter to Governor Jeb Bush in the Jupiter Courier regarding the FCAT test, a high school exit exam that requires a student to have mastered 10th-grade material in order to graduate.

I'm not going to reproduce her analysis here; I'll only comment that she's right on the mark.

Instead, I'd like to speak as the college adjunct (yes, I was an adjunct for a number of years before returning for the Ph.D.) who had to teach a community college "composition" class that was three levels below Freshman Composition.

Yes, I taught a composition class in which I was required to begin with parts of speech, move on to writing basic and then complex sentences, move to the paragraph, and then finish--if possible--with a 3-5 paragraph essay. This was done in an 18 week semester, so I spent about three weeks on parts of speech, and several students failed quiz after quiz on things as simple as nouns and verbs, subjects and predicates. I actually resorted to Schoolhouse Rock cartoons to try and get them to memorize the songs and, hopefully, the content. A failed effort, though; by the fourth week of class, we had gone from 30 students to 14. Most of the students who dropped the course were performing in the 10th to the 40th percentile.

All of my students were high school graduates. I'm not saying they graduated with a 4.0, but they were in possession of diplomas. I know this because we discussed it. They were in no way prepared to attend college, so the college was forced to offer not only four semesters of remedial English but several semesters of remedial math. Many students were enrolled in both remedial English and math, and were going to be in junior college for at least an extra year trying to get themselves up to the junior college level.

The universities I taught in were slightly better, having only two levels of composition below the freshman level. The lowest level started with the paragraph, instead of parts of speech and sentences, but many instructors found it necessary to go over these materials anyway, as students were clueless. At the university level, all students--in my class and in everyone else's--were in possession of a high school diploma. Transfer students from junior colleges were required to take the remedial courses there. (And I break a PC rule by using the word "remedial." We were not allowed to refer to the classes as "remedial.")

Andrea Johnson, the writer of this open letter to Governor Bush, seems to think that this is a perfectly acceptable situation, though she never addresses the consequences of her recommendations. So long as students do not feel bad about themselves, everything is okay. Pass them along, provide a sense of self-esteem--false though it is. Why earn something when the system can be tricked into giving it?

Standards are necessary, Andrea. And, unfortunately, we cannot trust teachers to assign appropriate grades to students. The ESL situation I described last month is indicative of this. This student had passed Freshman Composition; mine was the second of a two-semester sequence. Whoever passed this student was guilty of massive grade inflation. On a standardized test, this student would have scored at best in the 30th percentile, and would have been required to repeat Freshman Composition. This might have had the benefit of convincing this student--early enough for it to have made a difference--that his language skills were way under par, and that he needed to do something about it. Instead, he is a graduating senior and he cannot communicate in the English language. We'll probably wind up giving him a degree anyway, and sending him back to China. After all, if we were to hold him to some objective standard, we might stigmatize him and make him feel he hadn't done a good job in school. Which is, of course, precisely the reality, both for him and for 12th graders who cannot perform at the 10th grade level.

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