Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Test Scores Are Clear: US Higher Ed Is Weak

By Professor Doom

     In our “public” school system, it’s all high stakes testing, all the time. To succeed as a teacher in that system, you need to be very good at teaching kids to take standardized tests, or so the teachers say. Even if this isn’t perfectly accurate, it’s still pretty clear that American children get plenty of exposure to how standardized tests work, as well as extensive training and practice.

     Our higher education system is ridiculously expensive now, getting an undergraduate degree like a Bachelor’s can easily cost the student $100,000,  far more expensive than everywhere else in the world (far more so when you consider that many countries offer free higher education to their young adults). It’s not outrageous to think all, or at least some, of that money is paying for some legitimate education.

     Educational Testing Service (ETS) offers a Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a standardized test for college graduates wishing to go on to graduate school. Now, this test is given throughout the world, not just in the United States, and the only people taking this test are those with a serious interest in pursuing graduate school, as you have to pay for the privilege of taking this test. 

      Should Americans, with the advantage of going through a very test-intensive school system, and the advantage of our incredibly expensive undergraduate higher education system, do well on the GRE, relative to other countries? It sure seems like they would.

      Educational Testing Service has released the scores, by country, so we get to find out. The GRE is broken down into three categories, verbal reasoning, quantitative reasoning, and analytical writing.

     Let’s first look at verbal reasoning, the ability to read something in English and understand what is read. American students should have an incredible advantage here—many countries don’t have English as the primary language, and with the GRE being made in the good ol’ USA, there’s a cultural advantage here not to be overlooked. Seriously, English has a massive vocabulary and so many spelling quirks that, as a written language, gaining proficiency at the professional level is no trivial task at all, and far more so if English isn’t your first language.

     The average verbal score for an American student taking the GRE is 152.9. That statistic is meaningless in a vacuum, so let’s compare that score to GRE scores in other English speaking countries. New Zealand (157.3), Australia (158.4), Canada (156) and Britain (157.1). Hey, does anyone notice that America scores worse on this test than any other English speaking country? All that training in the public schools, all that money spent on higher education, clearly is worth nothing.

      Now, there’s a claim of bias here, as supposedly only the top students in those countries are taking the GRE, while, supposedly, we have terrible students taking the GRE here. It’s possible, but shouldn’t we be at least a little concerned when every English speaking country out there does better than Americans in English? The test is written by Americans, after all, we should have a huge cultural bias here.

     Even countries like Romania (153.5), Norway (153.1), Slovenia (153.4), South Africa (153.3), Switzerland (153.7) and Singapore (157.1) are able to perform better than America. Norway, incidentally, has free higher education. Granted, that higher average is from 98 Norwegians (as opposed to thousands of Americans)….but we really should ask why our colleges can’t seem to teach English to native English speakers as well as it is clearly being done in other countries, whether those other countries speak English or not. Sure, one country could get lucky at beating us like this, but it happens far too often to just be luck.

      Maybe we could get some of their “English as a Foreign Language” faculty to come here and teach our students? I don’t think I’m joking here…

     Analytical writing, much like English, should also be an easy category for our students to win. Alas, no. I’ll spare you the numbers, but once again, American students fall short of English speaking countries, sometimes by a very wide margin (close to a whole standard deviation for many countries, for those following the statistics). Even German students write in English better than our American students…again, can we bring their writing teachers over here?

      Bottom line, our testing-trained, expensively-educated, and native-language speaking students are no match for the non-English speaking students in many other countries when it comes to reading, or writing, in the English language.

      Shouldn’t we be a little worried?

     The final category for me to consider, quantitative reasoning, is a disaster. The US average (149.5) is below pretty much every industrialized nation on the planet. China, for example, is at 162.5, and Germany (155.5), Australia (155.7), India (154.1), Viet Nam (158.9), even the Ukraine (154.4) is well ahead, quite an achievement considering the country’s political situation the last few years.

     Yes, apologists for American higher education will claim that these comparisons aren’t fair, there’s just no way to compare the best American students to the best students of other countries…but I honestly feel that, when it comes to reading and writing in English, we should be able to have enough advantages there to look good…and we don’t, ever. I can certainly accept sometimes being behind, but when you’re always behind no matter how many advantages you have, that’s a legitimate sign that something is going terribly wrong.

     ETS really has released a treasure trove of information documenting the failure of our higher education system. 

      I want to talk about how the data suggests what the problem is. Education, as I’ve mentioned before, is something of a joke graduate program. 2% of Asian GRE test takers intend to go on to Education graduate school. For Europe, it’s 1%. 

     In the United States, it’s 8%.

     Many multiples of American resources go into this (now) questionable field than the rest of the world devotes.  Does this not suggest that maybe we’re looking at education in the wrong way here or at least throwing resources away? Many graduate Education degree programs in the US don’t even require the GRE for admittance, so we’re looking at the top American Education students here, incidentally.

     How do our best Education students score with the rest of the world? Once again, ETS is only too happy to provide the data. While in prior years they’ve generally done poorly, this year they’re solidly mediocre, except in one category. The lowest quantitative average was scored by the Education majors, amongst all other majors. 

     The people with the least understanding of quantitative reasoning end up being our math teachers. 

      Put all this information together, and realize our English teachers generally are worse in English than non-native English speakers, and our Math teachers have about the weakest quantitative skills on the planet. Could this possibly have some effect on why the education system is doing so poorly? 

      That would just be a matter of opinion, but the gentle reader must keep in mind that the American test takers are produced by our American higher education system. An honest person would look at how American college graduates are performing on the GRE relative to the rest of the world, look at how much we spend training our kids to take standardized tests in the public schools, look at how much we charge for college relative to the rest of the world, and realize: something is very wrong here.

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