Editorial: More tests are not the answer to an expensive education

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Brandy Coats/HIGHLANDER

We’ve all taken that one class. The one that’s so utterly boring that you can’t help but sleep through. The one that you can’t imagine would ever be helpful to you after you graduate. The one that, despite the professor’s best efforts (or perhaps because of them), is a waste of the 11 weeks you could be spending partying or taking a class that’s actually interesting.

Now imagine you could just take a test and get it over with in a week or two.

That promise is precisely what some colleges are thinking about providing their students. Instead of offering courses for a set period of time, like a quarter or a semester, students go through courses at their own pace, taking however many weeks they need to gain knowledge of the material, whether that’s three weeks or, if the material is more difficult to understand, 13. Whenever they feel ready, they take a test. If they pass, they receive course credit, and are free to enroll in another. Instead of being limited to four or five courses a quarter, a dedicated, knowledgeable and hard-working student could conceivably take double that amount — and halve the education costs in the process.

It’s certainly an innovative idea, and has drawn the attention of the Department of Education, which is promising federal dollars to some colleges looking to implement these new policies. It’s generating interest at colleges, too, who face ever-increasing costs and an ever-increasing student population. This fundamental shift in the way colleges provide their students with an education is hopeful and worth looking into, but may ultimately be much more trouble than it’s worth.

Right now, students have access to a professor every time they go to lecture, where they are free to ask questions about the material, the course, research and potential career opportunities. Although students in this alternative system would still be able to contact a professor, the lectures wouldn’t be live and in-person, instead occurring mostly online.

This inclusion of online classes in the formula inevitably produces the same questions that have plagued Massive Online Open Courses (MOOCs). Students will be physically more distant from campus, making it difficult to contact classmates and professors, and severing some of the most important bonds formed during one’s college career. Even if students’ questions about the course are answered, there is never that one-on-one interaction that builds relationships and begins careers. Instead of experiencing life on their own, students can stay put in their own familiar sphere, never emerging to experience and learn about the outside world.

The spiderweb of potential problems sticking to this test-oriented approach extends beyond the unknowns entangling MOOCs. In fact, the very foundation of this new method rests on two assumptions that, if accepted, are incredibly dangerous to our educational system.

The first assumption is that passing a test equates to mastery of the material. This assumption is hugely faulty. Certainly, tests play a role in determining how well a student knows the subject. But it is not the only metric — and should not be the main metric that judges student success. Students should be able to demonstrate their knowledge through dialogue with peers and create projects that rely on understanding key concepts, and not just be able to correctly bubble in a multiple-choice question.

Some variants of this test-centric plan are already in effect, but their results do not bode well for the future of this program. Students around the country are familiar with the AP test, a test that can be taken to prove college competency. Students do not have to take an AP course to take an AP test (although such courses are frequently offered at high schools), and the federal government has aggressively pushed the AP system, handing out vouchers like “work wanted” flyers in a crowded student parking lot.

Unfortunately, AP tests do not live up to the hype. Even as the number of students taking AP tests taken has risen from 1.2 million in 2002 to 2.9 million in 2012, the number of students receiving the lowest score possible, a one, has stagnated around 20 percent. More students are being shoved into classes that schools say will save them money in college, while paying more than $80 per test, many of which students are not passing. The program works great for some students. But the vast majority are left in the dust.

The promise the shiny new program makes is that students would save money and time. If past is any prologue, an unacceptable margin of students taking these tests would fail, with students’ dollars and hours lost in the quicksand.

The second, more heinous assumption is that some classes simply aren’t worth the same amount of time and money as others.

It is important to first note that this belief isn’t necessarily inherently detrimental. Some students simply find some classes less interesting than others, or see less applicability in them. This act is okay, and it should be expected of a diverse student body with a diverse array of interests.

But if the purpose of college is to expose students to a variety of ideas, what are we doing if we tie those ideas down to a scantron? The key hallmarks of engaging in a learning dialogue — conversation with peers, discussion with the professor and a fundamental engagement with ideas — are absent in a test-centered environment. School administrators may think they’re advancing students through the system faster, but in reality, they are leaving them behind with incomplete understanding of the way the world works.

Diversity of academic pursuit is another type of diversity, and students should be exposed to the different fields of study that exist in this world. Instituting a test-based system extends the preference system to dangerous extremes by preventing students from engaging with material they did not know existed and may even come to love. Exposure to a variety of different subjects allows students to weave a tightly knit tapestry of ideas, connecting what they know with what they’re learning.

A system centered on passing tests would undoubtedly work for a select few scantron-whisperers. But the majority of students would become ensnared in the sticky threads of the spider web, preventing us from obtaining the education promised to us and leaving us for the spider to eagerly devour. And if the system hasn’t achieved success at the high school level, how will it be different at the college level?

The desire to reduce tuition for students is a sound motive for implementing a new system. Unquestionably, tuition is too high now. Centering our college system on more test-taking is not the way to do it.

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