Examinations and Education

High-stakes exams are a necessary and a very good thing, but have now been demonized by our educational and psychobabble professionals because, for instance, hair dressers might fancy themselves as brain surgeons, and disabusing them of their fantasies might make them feel bad about themselves. 

High-stakes exams are potentially a problem at the margins where some don’t quite measure up, of course, but re-trials are a part of the system.  Or, at least they were, when reality and sanity prevailed.  A system that supports competency standards throughout, by telling pupils that learning is the doorway to advancement, encourages those at the margins to work harder if they really want to qualify.  Then competition ensures that the best rise to the top.  As a bonus, by learning more, even those who don’t qualify for jobs as physicists or musicologists, learn enough to be more successful and productive for themselves and their families, and a more qualified electorate helps to maintain our democracy as well. 

Must-pass exams are a problem when ‘promotion’ to the next higher school-grade is in the offing, though learning during the school year as preparation for the tests generally solves that problem.  And in any case, those promotions are, or should be, less comprehensive than qualifying for what was once thought to be higher education (college).  Then learning enough more may qualify you for still higher education, that is for graduate school, which may lead to a professional career.  

That seems to be something everyone should understand and support.  But our current system that concentrates on pandering to kids’ supposedly tremulous emotions encourages even our best kids to work less since they know they will pass regardless of effort.  That makes training even the knowledge-intensive professions harder since many otherwise-qualified candidates are not conditioned to the effort needed to succeed.  And that contributes to ‘stress,’ which makes depending on nanny handouts (or criminality) as strategies for getting ahead more attractive.

Therefore, whatever higher education may also be, now or in the future, it should not include remedial training. Especially retraining of the very basics formerly taught and mastered in grammar schools.  It also assumed that those who still need remedial training are simply not qualified for those jobs regardless of chronological age or even native intelligence, because they couldn’t currently benefit from that advanced training.  Learn the basics, then reapply.  And besides that, requiring them to go into debt to pursue currently unachievable goals is evil. 

So, at least until grammar and secondary school pupils master the basics, college should not be a foregone conclusion, and should not be subsidized by taxes.  Having once been poor myself, I could easily support various government scholarship programs for qualified poor kids (those who have proven themselves by prior scholarship to be capable of advanced training).  But funding an illiterate and innumerate someone simply because he is poor, or putatively ‘oppressed,’ is self-destructive and stupid.  Which is why the left insist on it. 

Twelve years of instruction was considered to be enough in most cases to determine this candidacy-for-further-training, since the basics really are basic, and because, starting as we do, a few years after toddlerhood, that amount of time coincides with bringing pupils at least close to chronological adulthood, with its assumed level of maturity.  The maturity was also thought to be needed in deciding who might eventually be trusted, after graduation, to make decisions that affect everybody, which is, or should be, one of the goals of professional training. 

Twelve years or so past toddlerhood was also thought to be the minimum time needed in most cases to gain the experience to begin to see that the simple lessons of the schoolhouse covered only a very small part of what has been, or can be, learned.  Ironically, knowing more develops humility. 

But that too, is inimical to the Progressive project, which teaches less but flatters more; for whom raising an artificial self-esteem is key -- at least until you discover that you can’t survive without their help, at which point it is Set, and Match for the nanny state.  And to prepare for that, as well as all the other reasons enumerated by the sane (for whom high-stakes tests constitute a version of “Trust, but verify,”) they raise taxes to “help” even more people at the expense of the ‘privileged.’

But if flattery and coddling pupils doesn’t raise competence, what will? 

A recent Public Television ‘Nova Wonders’ episode may have the answer, oddly enough. This episode, titled “Can we build a brain?” discussed a ‘breakthrough’ that computer scientists made in trying to teach a computer to identify objects presented to it in the form of digitized pictures.  That is, how to learn the difference between a broccoli and a tree. 

The secret?  Tell them when they got it wrong. 

Perhaps it is only because the computer is an inanimate object without feelings and emotions, but it turns out that, upon being told that it made a mistake, the computer did not collapse into a cringing neurotic ninny or become an emotional cripple from which it could emerge only with the help of professional handholding, droning babble, and psychoactive drugs.  It just made a note of its mistakes and then learned new stuff. 


In fact, it acted just like kids did before ‘educators’ replaced genuine ‘teachers’ in the classroom.  That began when the Great Society swept them aside in favor of transformational education. 

Remember it is ‘educators’ who insist that teaching the phonetic alphabet can best be done without telling kids what sounds the letters represent.  That is by using phonics.  And it is ‘educators’ who say that math can be taught best without dealing with numbers (except as the symbols found on calculator keys).


‘Teachers’ tell kids things they don’t already know, then test to see who has learned it. 

Let’s hope that Mrs. DeVos has seen the episode and decides to change tactics from merely taking decisions away from the federally-employed swamp creatures and giving them to State and locally-employed swamp creatures.   Federalism is a good thing, but in this case what is done rather than who does it matters more.  If we really want America to be great again, and then to resume her march to a rudely-interrupted, shining future, then we really, really, really need teachers to be a big part of kids’ lives again.  And far fewer counselors.

The computer scientists call this strategy, which reinstates a crucial educational step that self-esteem theory deliberately removed, ‘deep learning.’  I call it common sense in teaching. 

Photo credit: Will Kay via Flickr