American Exit Exams, How Low Can You Go?

Originally published in the Stanford Daily as part of a column series known as Adventures in Academia that explored issues related to the Stanford University community.

I cried a little when I read this story.

The New York Times ran an article last week titled, "As School Exit Tests Prove Tough, States Ease Standards," in which the reporter notes the typical cycles in exit exam difficulty. When exit exams are first released, they legitimately cover the knowledge expected of a high school graduate. As poor test scores roll in, legislatures quickly work to ease the difficulty of the test to ensure high graduation rates.

This trend is certainly nothing new. What particularly struck me was this paragraph: "Critics of Arkansas's [exit exam] system say it fails to show true math proficiency because students have only to score 24 out of 100 to pass the test and those who fail will be granted two additional chances to take the test. After that, they can take a computerized tutorial that is followed by a test." Our standard for graduating seniors is less than one in four correct on content from Algebra I.

Where are the politicians and education leaders when the discussion of a knowledge-based economy comes up? Economists, labor leaders and corporate heads have all identified the most significant paradigm shift in centuries. Education is not just a hobby for the bourgeoisie, it is a prerequisite for every single citizen of this country to find a basic job to put food on the table.

We need to radically reconsider our notions of what an education is if we are to thrive, nay, survive in the 21st century. We have lowered our expectations, lowered our bars and lowered our standards to the point where the goal of high schools in America is getting students to count and read a sentence, and yet, we still can only push three out of four to a diploma. That is a humiliating disgrace for a nation that prides itself on the advanced state of its science and technology.

If you believe the leaders of our states, the solution to this situation is to cut funding to education. To a certain degree, I do not blame them. It is hard to imagine a system that could so clearly fail as education and yet continue to be handed funding. Nonetheless, it is a painfully short-term decision, made by politicians who will be out of office before their damage is realized.

To reform education, politicians must reduce the power of three groups: teachers unions, supporters of teachers colleges, and hovercraft parents. Teachers unions, more than any other force, are killing American education. New York Public Schools are forced to retain teachers who abuse children and fail to teach their subject in a special Rubber Room because of their union contracts. Education is not about the teachers, it is about the students. Bad teachers should be fired. Period.

We need to vastly reform teacher colleges and the licensing system. Teachers need to learn their future subjects, not learn the psychology of teaching. Instead, schools should offer mentoring opportunities and better on-the-job training for new teachers while also encouraging further study in their academic discipline. This system will also open the door to students who never considered teaching, but may be open to pursuing it as a career.

The final group that needs to be targeted are hovercraft parents. When a son or daughter comes home with a bad grade, parents swoop in and demand gold stars to make them feel good. They then go to the polls and ensure that politicians who are elected share their mindset. These are the same parents attempting to eliminate homework because it takes away from sports practice. We need to demand more, not less, of our students.

Reducing the power of these three groups will not be easy, but to create these higher standards, every one of them will need to be involved. They need to agree to a set of common standards that every high school senior should know. And then they need to test to those standards and hold the line.

What can we do? Talk about your experience and passion for learning to every young person in your family and encourage them to seek out the very best education they can find. Fight against apathy, anti-intellectualism and the rugged individual notion that education does not matter. When someone tells you that "Oh, math is not really my thing," respond back, "and working at McDonald's isn't mine."

I am not willing to hear that students in America are incapable of handling a harder workload and more advanced coursework. These critics are wrong and I do not believe them. I believe in programs like KIPP, in which even the most unprepared students have been developed and sent to college. We need to raise standards throughout our country and hold them there. Our future depends on it.