Sunday, April 25, 2010

California Dumbs Down Tests

When it comes to education trends, as California goes, so goes the nation. Which is all the more reason to be concerned about the latest effort in California to dumb down standards. The University of California's Board of Admissions and Relations with Schools (BOARS) has launched another salvo in its long-running war against the SAT, the test used by many colleges and universities to assess academic achievement among high school seniors. This is only the latest in a series of moves by BOARS against the SAT, but this one may be a stalking horse to eliminate standardized tests in general, especially if they conflict with the goal of promoting racial and ethnic diversity.

BOARS has already eliminated a requirement that University of California applicants take at least two subject-matter tests in addition to the SAT Reasoning Test. Now BOARS is taking aim at the SAT directly. What makes the action more suspicious is that BOARS' own report notes that the SAT-R was developed specifically in response to testing principles it promulgated and that the new test "adds significant gains in predictive power of first year grades at UC." Nonetheless, BOARS is now recommending that students forgo the SAT in favor of the less-popular ACT.

Both tests have been accepted for more than 30 years and do a good job of predicting first-year grades. So why is BOARS now signaling preference for one test over another? After reading the report, it's hard to come away without feeling that the real target is standardized testing in general.

As numerous studies and the raw data on test scores have shown, performance on standardized tests varies not just between individuals but also between different racial and ethnic groups. In general, black and Latino students perform less well as a group than do white and Asian students. Since BOARS is committed to boosting the number of black and Latino students admitted to the UC system, standardized tests that do not produce politically correct results are a problem. It's not too far-fetched to wonder whether BOARS' effort to discourage students from taking the SAT may be the first step in getting rid of standardized tests altogether.

But getting rid of standardized tests is not the way to solve the problem of underperforming black and Latino students. Standardized tests, whether they be the SAT or state tests taken to assess elementary and secondary school performance required by the No Child Left Behind Act, merely document the skills gap that exists between whites and Asians on the one hand and blacks and Latinos on the other. The answer isn't fixing the tests to produce more even results between racial groups but improving the skills of those students who lag behind.

In 1996, voters in California did away with racial preferences in college admissions to state schools by enacting Proposition 209. Since then, many administrators in the UC system have tried to figure out a backdoor way to boost admissions of blacks and Latinos to the university's flagship schools, UC Berkley and UCLA. What they've failed to notice is that black and Latino enrollment system-wide is up over the levels when racial preferences were common. The students now enrolled under more race-neutral standards are doing just fine, graduating in higher percentages than they were when racial preferences admitted many students to campuses where they couldn't compete with their peers because their grades and test scores were substantially lower.

Eliminating standardized tests or dumbing down their contents doesn't help anyone. It simply sweeps evidence of academic disparities under the rug, where they can't be dealt with. If California really wants to improve education for all its students, it will work to keep high standards in place and encourage students to test what they have learned. California students prefer the SAT to other standardized tests, judging by the numbers who take this test now. BOARS' job should be to encourage students to make their own choices about which test they prefer, not to pick one test over another -- but most of all not to discourage the use of standardized tests altogether in the hopes of promoting greater diversity.


Texas corrects Leftist bias in history textbooks

Textbook publishers long ago learned that publishing textbooks for Texas was an opportunity to hit a gusher, like Jett Rink's gusher of oil in the movie "Giant." With more than 4.7 million students and a school board that adopts textbooks for the whole state, Texas attracts publishers from all over to make pilgrimages to Texas to get drafts of their books approved according to Texas standards. It follows that this one-size-fits-all cuts the cost of textbooks for schools in the rest of the nation.

This year, the Texas Board of Education landed itself in the middle of the culture wars when it rewrote the social studies curriculum, inviting a debate that mirrors the values conflict between traditionalists and multiculturalists. With partisans on the right and on the left, it's the 21st century's "battle of the books." The argument is tilted a bit to the right, with 10 Republicans and five Democrats deciding on changes in the books.

"We are adding balance," Dr. Don McLeroy, the conservative leader on the board, told The New York Times. "History has already been skewed. Academia is skewed too far to the left. "

Counters Mary Beth Berlanga, a longtime Texas board member and Hispanic activist, "They are rewriting history." She complains that conservatives ignore Hispanics and want to portray a white America. She and her liberal friends accuse the board of "racist ideology" and spreading "capitalism propaganda."

Calmer observers suggest the changes are a necessary correction of liberal bias. Gilbert T. Sewall, director of the New York-based American Textbook Council, an independent research organization that reviews history and social studies textbooks used in the nation's schools, argues that "for two decades, multiculturalists have tried to supplant the older view of Americans as religious dissenters, pioneers and immigrants intent on making a freer and better life, a force for good in the world, a nation that regulated reform and advanced civil rights to all."

He describes American parents as shocked and dismayed to discover their children are reading history as "a setting for power struggles between groups, or as an unjust and patriarchal society whose rapacity -- from Jamestown to Vietnam -- needs exposure and explication." Columbus isn't a discoverer and explorer, he's an invader and exploiter. Harriet Tubman is a saint. Thomas Jefferson is a sinner.

Although the more than 100 changes recently adopted by the selection board tilt rightward, they are mostly only mildly corrective. The American experience of moving westward is to be described as "expansionism," not "imperialism." The "free enterprise system" replaces the negative connotations that have come to adhere to the word "capitalism" (as in "capitalist pig"). The goals of the Great Society will be broadened to include discussions of its "unintended consequences."

Students will actually learn about "the conservative resurgence in the 1980s and 1990s," including the way Phyllis Schlafly led the successful fight against the Equal Rights Amendment and Newt Gingrich succeeded with the Contract With America and the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives in 1994.

These textbook controversies may soon become moot, as more schools rely on electronic books. Students would do a lot better to read different works of actual historians than the rehashed, reinterpreted history often written by hacks. Herodotus and Thucydides such hacks are not.

History, as the cliche goes, is always written by the victors, but a strange thing has happened to American education since the 1960s. Our triumphs have been trivialized and twisted, demonizing America with no celebration of what America stands for in the hearts and minds of the millions across the world.

Instead of emphasizing the abolition of slavery, the educationists encourage our children to wallow in the horrors of that "moral, social and political evil" before Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation freed slaves, along with an enormous expenditure of blood in the Civil War. Instead of focusing on the courage of our ancestors, educationists obsess on what went wrong. They indulge the mindset that sneers at the tea parties as "rabble and racist," ignoring the growing aspiration to return to the smaller government as envisioned by the Founding Fathers.

Lord Byron scoffed that history was the "devil's Scripture." Arnold Toynbee defined history as "a vision of God's creation on the move." The textbook wars will continue, because they're too big even for Texas.


Australia: Too-hot topics out of secular ethics course

THE state government made a last-minute decision to remove a hypothetical scenario involving designer babies from secular ethics classes being trialled in public schools as an alternative to scripture classes.

A hypothetical terrorist hijacking has also been removed from ethical scenarios put to students.

The baby scenario was removed some time between late last week and early this week after the Herald reported the Anglican and Catholic churches had lobbied the Keneally government over the ethics trial as a threat to the future of religious education.

Phil Cam, an associate professor of history and philosophy at the University of NSW, who developed the ethics curriculum, confirmed the two scenarios had been omitted, saying they were considered "age inappropriate".

The Catholic Bishop of Wollongong, Peter Ingham, the spokesman for the NSW and ACT bishops on the ethics trial, said he was not aware that the designer baby and terrorist scenarios had been part of the original draft and their inclusion was not something the Catholic church had lobbied against.

A spokesman for the Anglican church also said the Anglican church had not been aware of these topics in the curriculum.

A spokesman for the NSW Education Minister, Verity Firth, confirmed that the controversial topics had been removed.

The NSW Greens MP and spokesman on education, John Kaye, said: 'There are no reasons why these issues should not be discussed in primary school classrooms as students are exposed to them through news reports and television."

Bishop Ingham said he did not oppose the teaching of ethics in schools but did not want children enrolled in scripture classes to be excluded from them. He said he would call on parishioners of the Catholic diocese to sign petitions asserting the importance of scripture classes.


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