Arts United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on Labo.

Education's impact on economic competitiveness : hearing before the Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Fourth Congress, first session ... February 2, 1995 online

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'Its easy to see who really makes decisions about what schools teach: the kids do.' (Powell, Farrar
and Cohen 198S. p. 9)

External assessments also have pervasive effects on the stmctnre of student rewards. When signals of
achievement assess performance relative to fellow students (eg. grades and class rank) rather than relative to an
absolute standard, students have a personal interest in persuading each other not to study. The studious are
called nerds, in part, because they are making it more difficult for others to get good grades. Since devoting time
to studying for an exam is costly, the welfare of the entire class is maximized if no one studies for exams which
are graded on a stria curve. The cooperative solution is 'no one studies raore than the minimum.' Participants
are generally able to cell who has broken the 'minimize studying" code and reward those wlio conform and
punish those who do not. Side payments and punishments are made in a currency of friendship, respect and
ridicule that is not limited in supply. For most students the benefits that might result from studying for the exam
are less important than the very certain costs of being considered a 'brain geek*, 'grade grubber* or 'acting
White,' so most students abide by the 'minimize studying* 'don't raise your hand too much' aorm. Most
American students are part of friendship circles in which the following norms prevail: It is OK to be smart You
cannot help thac But, it is definitely not OK to sperui a lot of time studying. Instead, use your free time to soaalize,
participate in athletics or earn money. When learning is assessed relative to an outside standard, students no
longer have a personal interest in getting the teacher off track or persuading each other to refrain from studying.

ADMINISTRATOR INCENTIVES: Some American school administrators focus on lowering the failure

rate rather than raising achievement A principal who had recently fired a teacher for failing too many of her

students justified his decision with the following:

"I have made it very clear that one of my goals is to decrease the failure rate, to make sun the
lads feel good about learning stay in class, stay in school and do welL.. Math is just a big body
of knowledge; what is Algebra II across the nation anywayr he asks. When he taught band, he
adds, he certainly didn't expea kids to finish the year as musidans-bui he did want them to

know more about music than they did before All the talk about preparing students for college

struck hiffl as "ludtcrous." Instead the goal should be to keep students studying math (■ndtey,
Sept 19. 1993 p. 19, 20).



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When there is no extenial a«»*««™''»'r of academic achievement, students and their parents benefit little
£rom administrative decisions that ope for higher standards, more qualified teachers or a heavier student work
load. The immediate consequences of such dedsioos— higher taxes, more homework, having to repeat courses,
lower GPA's. complaining parents, a greater risk of being denied a diploma— are ail negative. Since college
admission decisions are based on rank in class, GPA and aptitude tests, not eaaemally assewcd achievement in
high school courses, upgraded standards will not improve the college admission prospects of next year's
graduates. Graduates will probably do better in difiScult college courses and will be more likely to get a degree,
but that benefit is uncertain and far in the future. Maybe over time the school's reputation and, with it, the
admission prospects of graduates will improve because the curreni: graduates are more successful in local
colleges. That, however, is even more uncertain and postponed. As a result, school reputations are determined
largely by things that teachers and administrators have little control oven the socio-economic status of the student
body and the proportion of graduates going to college.

The Scholastic Aptitude Test is no substitute for curriculum based exams because it does not assess
knowledge and understanding of science, history, social science, statistics and calculus or the ability to write
(Jencks and Crouse 1982). Consequently, parents can see that improving the teaching of these subjects will have
only minor effects on how their children do on the SAT, so why worry about standards? In any case, doing well
on the SAT matters only for those who aspire to attend a selective college. Most American students plan co
attend public colleges which admit all high school graduates from the state with the requisite courses.

External exams in high school subjects can be expected to transform the signalling snvirotunent. There
is now a very visible payoff to hiring better teachers and improving the school's science laboratories. Larger
numbers of students pass the external exams and this in turn influences college admissions decisions. School
reputations will now tend to reflea student academic perfonnance rather than the family background of the
community or the success of football and basketball teams. If additionally parents and students can choose which
high school to attend and aid from higher levels of government is based on enrollment, the stakes for the school
administrators become very high indeed. Poor student performance on the rxiemal exams might force layoffs
of school sta£C

2^ - Evidence of the Effects of Curriculum Based Exams on Learning

Probably the best way to look for evidence on the impact of curriculum based exams is to compare
jurisdictions with different kinds of examinations systems. If possible comparisons should be made with other
jurisdictions in the same country. The jurisdictions should be from within one country and must be reasonably
large, however, for otherwise colleges and employers are not likely to use grades on the curriculum-based e:ams
in their selection decisions, so the rewards for doing well may be quite limited,

New York vs the Rest of the United States: New York State is reasonably large and has a Regentt



78

ExaminadoB synem which reaches over half of the stale's high school students.* It is, indeed, the only state in
the U.S. with a curriculuin based examination system covering the majority of high school graduates.'*
California is currently tryug to introduce one. Consistent with the theory laid out above, the Regents exams (or
something else unique to New York State) has raised statewide achievement levels. When the family income,
parental education, race and gender of SAT test takers are controlled. New York State has the highest adjusted
mean Scholastic Aptitude Test score of the sample of 38 states with adequate numbers of test takers to be
included in the study (Graham and Husted, 1993)." This occurs despite that fact that Regenu exam grades
account for less than half of the course grade and influence only the type of diploma received. A passing score
on Regents exams is not necessary for admivtirwi to non-university higher education and employers ignore exams
results when they make hiring dfrisifmt,

Comparing Canadian ProvlBcea: Probably the best place to test hypotheses about the impact of
curriculum-based external examinations is Panarfa Some ranariian provinces have cuniculimi-based exams-
Quebec, Newfoundland, Alberta. New Brunswick and British Columbia; the others do not. The hypotheses
outlined in section 2.1 were tested in data on the mathematics and science competence of 42,241 r^wWi.ti ^nd
American D year olds from the International Assessment of Educational Progress (lAEP). Holding the social
class background of students constant, students from Canadian provinces with examination systems were
substantially (23 percent of a standard deviation) better prepared in mathematics and 18 percem of a standard
deviation bener prepared in science than students firom provinces lacking such exams. The efCea of an exam
system on mathematics achievement of 13 year olds is larger in a standard deviation metric than the decline in
math SAT scores between 1969 and 15)80 that has been such a focus of public concern.



^ About 56 percent of 9th graders take the Mathematics Course 1 exam and, of these, 24 percem fail
Similar proportions of 10th and 11th graders take the global studies, biology and FnglUh exams. Failure rates
were 20 percent in global studies, 18 percent in biology and U percent in F"gli


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Online LibraryArts United States. Congress. Senate. Committee on LaboEducation's impact on economic competitiveness : hearing before the Subcommittee on Education, Arts, and Humanities of the Committee on Labor and Human Resources, United States Senate, One Hundred Fourth Congress, first session ... February 2, 1995 → online text (page 11 of 15)