This is a rant. I wrote it three weeks ago now, and have now “cooled off” enough to still think it’s worth posting.
One of my summer tutoring kids just left, and I was talking to Mick and he suggested I write all this down. He’s right, and I’m furious. This is a rant about the State of Georgia and the state of our public education, and if you don’t feel like reading a rant or if you think you’ll get fired up as well and aren’t up for that, take this warning and close this link. I promise I won’t get angry with you. But I don’t want you reading along if you don’t want to deal with a rant. Consider yourself warned.
Still with me? You are so good to me!
Here is the story. This kid should have graduated two months ago. He hasn’t passed the Georgia High School Graduation Test yet, though, despite a handful of opportunities, and that just plain stinks. I am by no means a bleeding-heart or an excuse maker, I don’t feel bad for kids just because they can’t pass a test, and I almost certainly do not believe in “test anxiety.” That being said, this kid’s been robbed in more ways than one, and I am furious that he’s a victim of our lousy system. He’s one of the good kids, and he’s a victim. And I’m pissed.
First of all, the test itself is patently unfair. This is not new in the history of Georgia tests. For years, the GHSGT Science component was known to be ridiculous and the very model of a bad test: after three years of high school science, students were expected at the end of their junior years to recall facts from a class they took two years ago. And the GHSGT isn’t the only Georgia test rife with issues and questions of validity, either, but we’ll save that for another rant, another day.
It used to be that the math component asked questions such as “which of these is used to measure temperature?” and showed images of a clock, a thermometer, and so forth. A lot has changed since then, of course, and the state has done a 180-degree swing to prove just how much it has “increased standards.”
Unfortunately, they went about it all wrong. Now, the math test is a lot more like the science test used to be, which is to say, asking three years of content material in one exam, and much of that material either at the basic “recall” level (do you remember this specific fact, kinds of questions) or at way too high of a level for a specific topic. What do I mean when I say that? Great question. What I mean is that although the question itself may be a higher-level question, because the test covers so much material, even these questions are reduced to “do you remember this specific concept?” and are not, in the end, higher-order-thinking questions as much as memorization questions. Thus, the GHSGT is terribly unfair, unrealistic, and I’ll say it: damaging. I know you’re thinking, “okay, but what makes it so bad?” The short answer is that it covers too much material too specifically, which I just explained. But it’s more than that.
Let’s start with a simple question: what is the – or any -- high school graduation test designed to measure? It seems to me that it should measure basic competency to be a functional adult. It should show that a student went to high school, took math classes, and has a functionally literate understanding of math. Pardon my French here, but who really gives a rat’s you-know-what if Junior can identify the properties of the circumcenter of a right triangle? What we should be measuring with this graduation test should be basic benchmarks. Can you identify the graph of a quadratic? What happens if the leading coefficient is negative? Can you use and apply the Pythagorean Theorem? Can you calculate area and understand the difference between, say, lateral and surface areas of a prism? Can you perform simple operations and solve moderately complex equations? Can you add and subtract fractions? Can you find an average? Perhaps even a weighted average? Can you identify and apply mean, median, mode and understand why mean is not resistant to outliers? Can you read a graph or a pie chart? Can you write, graph, and identify a linear equation? Can you manipulate a recipe or figure out how much paint you need for a room, or can you convert inches to miles, centimeters to feet?
THESE are the things that make for a functionally literate adult.
We don’t need to know if you remember how to use the sigma-notation formula for standard deviation, or how to complete the square for a quadratic function. If you ever need them again (and you may well – I don’t dismiss these skills out of hand; I am merely agreeing with most high schoolers when they say they will never use this stuff again), you will surely be able to look it up. But you should know, for example, that there are 52 weeks in a year*, 3 feet in a yard*, and how to make change if I buy a shirt for $19.99, tax is 6%, and I hand you two twenties*…. And I don’t say that because I expect you to be working retail. I say that because I expect you to understand American currency and simple arithmetic.
*all things my students did not know how to do. That should tell you their level, and affirm the idea that they would be better served in a slower, lower-level math class that meets their needs and prepares them to function in society. I’m not saying they need a life-skills class, but I wouldn’t argue against it if you offered them one! These are good, articulate, kids. They are not “slow,” and they will be outstanding members of society. But instead, we’re saying they don’t get to graduate high school, and that in turn limits their options severely. They’re not trying to go to Harvard. They’re trying to go to community college, or take the ASVAB and join the Navy. The Navy will realize soon enough that they’re not fighter-jet pilots… why can’t the State of Georgia?
But that’s not what happens in Georgia. Instead, students are asked to both remember and correctly apply more challenging concepts as much as three years after they first encountered them. And for some students, that’s not a problem, but for the kids who don’t really belong in those classes to begin with, that’s grossly unfair and entirely unreasonable. It doesn’t measure what they can do, it measures what they have specifically remembered – because it was not, sadly, actually ever learned. It fits right in line with the Georgia – and national, to some extent – misguided mantra to “raise standards,” without any regard to whether there is any actual learning. We’re so concerned with telling everyone how much material we cover, that we never actually tell them how many kids never “got it.” And we doctor our test scores and cutoff marks to make it almost impossible for the layperson to realize how doctored and sad and off-the-mark the tests and measures really are.
I’ve said this many times, and I don’t want to stray too far down a tangent here, but wouldn’t it be better for all of us if, instead of saying “look how many topics we covered,” we could say, “look how much we learned”? We race to touch upon so much more than reasonably fits in a school year, we shove material down kids’ throats when the kids are not ready for it academically or developmentally (in some cases, both), and then we have to dumb it all down so the kids can at least have some measure of success and the failure rates are not astronomical. Then, we test these same kids at higher levels and wonder why no one is successful. It makes no sense!
The GHSGT should not be a “final exam” for subject-area content. It should be a gateway exam to say that you meet minimum competencies as a literate adult. The measure of how well you understand specific difficult concepts from Algebra 2 or Geometry should come from those course grades and those EOCTs (what with being in a testing frenzy and all, though I do happen to agree with EOCTs, if not exactly – or even remotely -- how they are handled in Georgia).
The Georgia High School Graduation Test as it is now sets up these good, but ill-placed, kids for failure. Our system of “bigger, better, faster,” ignores the needs of the kids that are not special-needs, but DO need a slower pace. We have effectively said they won’t be good members of society, and to prove it, we will make it so that forever, they will have to say that despite four years of excellent attendance, decent grades, and all sorts of participation in extra-curriculars, they have to say for the rest of their lives, “I didn’t graduate high school.”
Why do we do this?
We know at whose expense it is, so I ask again, WHY DO WE DO THIS?