The US National Exam: Whoops?

Reformist and well-admired-by-me Deborah Meier hates the idea of a national exam, as well as national standards.  Sylvia points out astutely in the comments on the last post that the NAEP may be a successful measure of learning because it is based on random sampling, versus being administered to all students.

Me? As usual, I’m trying to blaze a middle trail in my head. Surely there must be a way to satisfy the very real need for agreement on a core, essential set of knowledge that all American students should strive to attain, while allowing for equally necessary local approaches, additions, and revisions. What might that look like?  Could high schools, for example, serve as the main repository for locally and individually-directed study, while elementary and middle schools set the basic foundations upon which all states would agree?

I’m starting to wonder something heretical, actually: if the outraged hullabaloo that followed former New York governor George Pataki’s statement that an 8th grade education level was sufficient was misplaced. Granted, the implication here was that the state releases all responsibility for education after 8th grade, versus merely shifting the educational focus of the higher grades. However, consider the benefits of getting everyone’s fingers out the curriculum pie past 8th grade except those to whom it matters most: the families, students, and local communities the schools serve.

Of course, arranging high schools with a high degree of internal choice has its distinct drawbacks, as Harry Brighouse points out:

…[such a Shopping Mall] school ensures that students will choose their way into college-prep, vocationally-oriented, or non-demanding classes depending on the attentiveness and aspirations of their parents, the peer group they are in, and their own perception of their own abilities. The texture of school life is beautifully placed on display in the book, and the way that “empowering” students to choose classes ends up sorting them more effectively even than tracking would is nicely…well, tracked. (One of the many things that has always puzzled me about so many American left-educators is that they oppose tracking and are utterly convinced that parental choice of schools will lead to inequality, but defend student choice of classes within schools to the hilt, whereas Shopping Mall High School shows that it has much the same effect as tracking, and is driven by exactly the same dynamic as choice of schools).

Mm.  Take that, Deborah?

Maybe they get this right in Norway.

4 thoughts on “The US National Exam: Whoops?

  1. If we’re going to talk about things that are hypothetically possible if we ignore history and politics, can we also talk about moving education funding to the federal level?

    For that matter, can’t we all agree on national health care and social security? Surely there must be a way.

  2. In the Norwegian schools, students do choose their own educational direction at age 16, after 10th grade. They do indeed then track themselves “depending on the attentiveness and aspirations of their parents, the peer group they are in, and their own perception of their own abilities.” A host of external factors ensures that this is not necessarily a big disadvantage. Vocational training does not have the kind of low status that it has here – nobody thinks recommending a student to become an electrician or a plumber amounts to having “low expectations,” and graduates from these programs will tend to have higher income and quite as high a status as graduates from college prep programs. It could be argued that the problem with tracking in the US is the low value ascribed to skilled labor here, the weird snobbish preference given to studying quaint British poetry over learning to build a house, say. Also, in the Norwegian system, returning to school to make up the difference between a vocational training and a college prep program is straightforward and free of charge (other than lost income, of course), so that students’ early choices do not strongly restrict access to higher education. It would on one level seem that this kind of system would be even more useful in the US, where children from working class families could start earning a stable income at an earlier age, breaking the cycle of poverty, while in the American system the many years of pre-academic training without clear vocational preparation makes mere graduation a selective thing. I wonder about cause and effect with respect to the low status and the low wages associated with skilled labor here though. Maybe the worth of vocational training in Norway ultimately hinges on the legally guaranteed strength of its unions.

    Martin Haberman says it all in one sentence: “A society that places greater value on poor engineers than it does on great plumbers will have neither theories nor pipes that hold any water.”

  3. Can’t blame a girl for dreaming, Tom. As H’s post so eloquently demonstrates, however, “agreement” on a government-run social net, including our schools, would require the abandonment of central tenets of the American myth/worldview by at least half our population, not the least of which is “no raised taxes.” I’m no fortune-teller, but I wonder if some crisis of 9/11 proportion is the only “way” there might be.

  4. Just as America’s presidential democracy has far-reaching effects, not always for the better, the federal delegation of responsibility for education to the states makes it well-nigh impossible for the U.S. to deal effectively with its educational problems. “Let’s take a vote!” is decidedly not the best solution to every problem, and education policy is one of them.

    It’s a mess.

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