If you are a high school teacher, then you may have heard this question: “What did you get on the SAT when you took it last century?” It’s an honest question. Some students just want to see how they compared to you. Students do that.
The problem is that there really is no comparable way of measuring an SAT score from the fall of 1987 to one thirty years later. The test itself has undergone so many changes and iterations. How colleges look at the test has changed. My alma mater, Wake Forest, does not place emphasis on it as it did when I applied.
To equate current data in student achievement to historical data is really not that easy to do, but when the names of certain tests and terms never change, it is very easy to think that measuring data now to previous sets is fluid.
Many politicians and education reformers know that and take advantage of many people’s lack of understanding that comparing current data with historical data goes deeper than the names of the tests.
It allows these politicians and reformers to use “revisionist history.”
Malcolm Gladwell is a well-known writer many books that call into question our interpretation of social phenomena and what we may assume are tried and true relationships of cause and effect. Titles like David and Goliath, Outliers, and The Tipping Point are staples in my AP English Language & Composition choice-read units because they force students to question their criteria of how they determine truth.
Gladwell also has a rather poignant podcast called Revisionist History. Episodes explore how our interpretations of what has happened in the past are often clouded by how others present their “truths” which may purposefully exclude crucial facts and hidden clues to the actual truth.
That term “revisionist history” suggests a purposeful façade has been placed over some historical event in order to skew its appearance in the present.
Public education, especially here in North Carolina, is a victim of revisionist history. When people like Betsy DeVos cry over our world rankings on tests or when our own state superintendent, Mark Johnson, bemoans the “status quo,” what they are not showing is how the very terrain of how student achievement is measured has morphed considerably in the last two decades. Especially ironic is that DeVos and Johnson have between them two years of classroom experience. That’s not a lot of history in the classroom.
But the terms by which we name these measurements have not changed; therefore, we as a public can feel a false sense of security in our knowledge of how well public education is doing.
Consider the following (at least in North Carolina):
- All school systems in NC now operate under a ten-point scale. In the past, a “70” was the lowest passing grade a student could receive in many districts. Now it is a “60.”
- Some school systems have a minimum grade allowed for a student on a report card: “50.” Couple that with the first condition and of the 51 actual numerical grades that a student can receive, only 10 of those are failing grades (“50”- “59”).
- Graduation rates are altered. It is interesting to think that those rates can be measured differently from state to state. Does it include students who graduate in only four years? Five years? Who finish at least with a GRE?
- Definitions of what is proficient on standardized test results changes constantly. Some people may call it a “curve,” but what really is happening is that a “conversion formula” is used to create a final grade. In some instances, that may change from semester to semester. Plus, we have those in power who can’t tell proficiency from growth.
- In the last two to three decades the nation has seen a rapid rise in standardized tests on federal, state, and local levels. Who makes those tests and how they are graded are rather vague in many cases. Writing tests may actually be graded by algorithms not people.
- There is the move move to all online testing for convenience and economic reasons takes away from the kinetic advantages of using pen and paper.
- Funding for resources in public schools constantly changes. Actually, it keeps decreasing. In NC, schools are receiving less per-pupil expenditures than they did before the Great Recession (adjusted for inflation).
- Schools are measured differently than they were just a few years ago. In NC, there is the school performance grading system that uses variables like the ACT, which ALL students must take on a school day. The ACT designed to be taken by those students who wish to apply to college. Not all students want to go to college.
- Those school performance grades in NC and school “report cards” are calculated by a company called SAS. The algorithms they use in coming up with those results are secret. Educators do not know if those calculations use a constant formula.
- End-of-course tests and standardized finals have changed considerably over the last few years and many do not know who writes them.
- Many students are now taking more classes as a seven period day is being replaced with block scheduling. That means that students now take eight classes in a school year.
And that’s just a few.
When the criteria for how we measure schools and student performance are constantly in flux, then the people who control the data can present it in any way they like. It allows for revisionist history.
And that can skew the truth.
Maybe Malcolm Gladwell could investigate that in his next book.
I would certainly add it to my choice-read selection list for school.