Put to the Test: Thinking Critically About College Testing

Does being a “university educated person” still mean what it did to previous generations? Our cultural expectation was that college graduates would be broadly conversant on many subjects, be able to engage in cocktail chatter with a variety of people, and have the ability to evaluate the world around them. Such people would be well-prepared to go to professional or graduate schools and take up careers in law, medicine, engineering, or business because their college years had given them the ability to understand, evaluate, and use the information and habits of mind learned in college. This has long been the intention of a general education curriculum going back to the origins of higher education in America. Thomas Jefferson explained it so:


Thomas Jefferson

                “The objects of this primary eduction (sic) determine its character and limits. These objects are To give to every citizen the information he needs for the transaction of his own business; To enable him to calculate for himself, and to express and preserve his ideas, his contracts and accounts, in writing; To improve by reading, his morals and faculties; To understand his duties to his neighbors and country, and to discharge with competence the functions confided to him by either; To know his rights; to exercise with order and justice those he retains; to choose with discretion the fiduciary of those he delegates; and to notice their conduct with diligence, with candor and judgement; And, in general, to observe with intelligence and faithfulness all the social relations under which he shall be placed. To instruct the mass of our citizens in these, their rights, interests and duties, as men and citizens, being then the objects of education in the primary schools, whether privet or public, in them should be taught reading, writing and numerical arithmetic, the elements of mensuration…and the outlines of geography and history.”(1818)

A graduate of the University of Virginia would clearly be expected to use critical thinking skills, acquired through study of mathematics, rhetoric and logic at the college level. Not only would such a graduate be well positioned to have a useful and productive life but could also be counted upon to be an informed voter and potentially a citizen-legislator.

As we fast forward to the present day, we hear streams of business leaders and government officials decry the state of public education. The phrase “Why Johnny Can’t Read” has become a cliché due to its overuse in news accounts of education’s failings. The question of why Johnny can’t think was the subject of a study of students’ critical thinking ability conducted by the Social Science Research Council. The study purported that 45% of students showed no improvement from two years of college study and after four years 36% had made no significant gains.

The study was quite rightly criticized for not being a longitudinal study that tracked the same students over four years. If the pools of students tested as incoming freshmen, rising sophomores and graduating seniors was not populated by the same people, no group conclusions would be reliable. Reliability would be further strained by not testing Student A at each of these intervals. Taking into account that some students attend a four-year college on the “five-year plan,” the reliability of the test pool is further degraded. The reliability of a research instrument is based on its ability to test the same thing the same way in repeated administrations.

Likewise, the validity of the instrument comes into question. With an open-ended written test, there must be a very clear grading rubric so that each reader/scorer is evaluating the written pieces the same way, against the same standards. If the graders were able to “see” the outline underneath the various essays, then they could glean something of the writer’s organization of thoughts and structure of argument. However, this is a very subjective measurement and is dependent upon the interpretive abilities and fidelity of the graders. So, it becomes difficult to know if the test used actually tested critical thinking, and would be considered a valid instrument.

Florida Capitol, Tallahassee

Florida Capitol, Tallahassee

This seems to require some meta-learning, being able to think about the educational process while going through it, on the part of the students and then to have some sort of “meta-evaluation” taking place where the readers would try to project these layers of thoughts onto the essays. When Florida instituted the CLAST (College Level Academic Skills Test) exam in the mid-1980s, the essay portion was of greatest concern to those of us leading composition courses. In a sense, we had to “teach to the test” but all that required was to teach the basic forms of essays: cause-and-effect, narrative, comparison-contrast, process, and so on. We would have done that anyway because that is the way freshman English is supposed to be taught. In a five-year period, no student of mine that earned at least a “C” in a writing course ever failed the essay portion the CLAST. If students passed my courses, they could as Mr. Jefferson put it “express and preserve his ideas … in writing.” Without mind-reading machines, the only way faculty can assess how students think is via some instrumentality, most often writing but speech would apply, as would any of the creative arts, although writing and speaking would be the most explicit.

Perhaps the root of the issue is not in college instruction at all but in the readiness for it. The just-released report on national ACT scores was stunning in its bad news. Nationally, only 19 percent of the 2013 high school graduating class was “college-ready” in all four subjects tested: English, reading, math and science. At the other end of the scale, 31 percent of those tested were not college-ready in ANY subject. If a third of all students potentially coming in are in no way prepared but there are more and more programs to get those students into college, some college, any college, as long as they can get financial aid, a perfect storm is being brewed.

Here in Florida, the stats were not any prettier. Only 19 percent of Floridians tested as ready in all four subjects (up one percent from the 2012 report), and 40 percent of Florida students tested as unready across the board. As a young professor, students came into my classes out of high school claiming that they never had to write an essay longer than one page or read an entire book. Based on homework submissions, I believed them.

Much hope is being placed on the Common Core standards that are being touted nationally. Federally-formed lessons plans that are said to be tougher in mathematics and language arts are an unlikely panacea. If the students can barely lift a ten-pound weight now, putting ten more pounds on the bar wont get more reps out of them.

On the other hand, I have a modest proposal that does not involve eating the poor. I’ve grappled with these matters my entire professional life as a higher ed reporter, professor, college staffer and administrator (not to mention as a transient student, sampling 13 different schools in 11 years of public education thanks to my father’s Air Force career). In that time, I’ve seen rural, urban and suburban schools, large and small, North and South. Somehow, I was blessed with the ability to do my learning and observe the process. What I saw that worked includes:

Smaller school sizes. While much is made of smaller class sizes, collecting lots of these small classes into giant mega-plants of instruction is a false economy. Beyond a student body of a few hundred students, it becomes impossible for the adults to know all of the children. If any teacher, coach, staff member or administrator sees any kid in the hall, that adult ought to be able to say, “Billy, aren’t you supposed to be in social studies now?” That kind of accountability is helpful with discipline and that creates good conditions for learning.

Bring on the hard stuff earlier. Allowing for the evolution of the English language, material like Shakespeare and Dickens was intended for the average person. Now, we act like it is so advanced that its study must be painful. Were they alive today, the Bard’s plays would be TV series and Dickens would be churning out paperbacks for beach reading. If you keep saying that the medicine will taste bad, it will and we will avoid it. However, one of the best ways to learn to write well is to read things that were written well and try to imitate it until you find your own voice.

 Study halls. Idle hands being what they are, let’s keep them busy. Instead of all of the slack time in the modern school day, with students cut loose by 2:30, have more time of adult supervision. Not only do study halls let you know where the students are, if they are scheduled into the day on a rotation, students will know they have set times when they can work on their lessons. As a teacher, when it’s my turn to monitor the study hall, I ca grade papers for ten to fifteen minutes, walk the aisles for a couple of minutes to confiscate all the surreptitious copies of “People” and “Maxim” and then sit to grade more papers. I would also then be available to students who want to come up and ask a question about their lessons. If I have a pocketful of college degrees, I ought to be able to answer an 8th grade science question.

If we produce future high school graduates after these simple reforms, college readiness should not be much of a problem, as the necessary habits of mind will have been absorbed along the way.

About drronthomasjr

Dr. Ron Thomas, Jr. heads Thomas Consulting Group, a consortium of professionals in leadership, crisis management, and media relations.
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