There are two good reasons for schools to test students. One is to establish what a student knows. The other is to establish a baseline measurement of a student's abilities that provides direction on what the child needs.
Under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, schools are required to test students for a reason that is faulty at best - to determine if every student has achieved a standard level of knowledge. It assumes a rational nexus that all members of the age group can achieve the same capabilities, which is like claiming that with the same training and attention, every golfer could be as successful as Tiger Woods.
The result has been to focus the United States' public school systems on preparing students for a standardized test and mandating that teachers overcome differences in student abilities, motivation and maturity. The response in some states has been to set the standard at a low common denominator, effectively setting the pace for an entire class to its slowest, least motivated student.
That allows high schools to qualify more of their students for graduation. It does nothing for assuring that students graduating from high school are prepared for post-secondary education. High achieving students will be prepared in spite of the limits of their educational program; most will not be.
Discrepancies in student capabilities have been evident through the decade since the federal law was enacted. In 2007, the Pew Research Center reported an issue arising in North Carolina where elementary students successfully meeting standards of No Child Left Behind were found to be unprepared for high school-level math classes. Tennessee reported 87 percent of its schools were meeting NCLB standards, but Tennessee students tested under a National Assessment of Educational Progress found only 21 percent of 8th-graders were able to handle grade-level math and only 26 percent met NAEP reading standards.
Beyond high school, it has been more of an issue. The Pew report said a third of high school graduates required remedial classes to move on to college ("Lake Wobegon, U.S.A., where all the children are above average - at least by their way of counting," Pew Research Center publication, Jan. 31, 2007; stateline.org).
"Students advance through school thinking they have the knowledge needed to go to college and get a decent job, only to find out too late they were never prepared," the Pew report said.
The data aren't getting better. The ACT college entrance examination last year found that fewer than half of the high school students met benchmark scores on four academic areas - English, math, reading and science. Most fell short in science and math (Almanac of Higher Education 2011, chronicle.com/section/Almanac-of-Higher-Education/536/).
At the University of Akron, an open admissions campus, Provost William Sherman said ACT scores for students were falling, "meaning that the students admitted were less prepared academically and therefore less likely to finish within six years" ("Graduation rates fall at one-third of 4-year colleges," Chronicle of Higher Education, Dec. 5, 2010, www.chronicle.com). Another 2010 Chronicle report notes 60 percent of students enrolled in community colleges need to take at least one remedial course.
But student preparedness has been an ongoing issue.
Charles Reed, chancellor of the California State University System, said in 2006 that there needs to be a transition from K-12 schools to college. "The single biggest obstacle to the school-college transition is establishing rigorous standards and high expectations in the public schools," he said ("Student readiness: the challenge for colleges," Chronicle, March 10, 2006).
Experience has been that school boards across the United States are not inclined to establish high standards that their schools would struggle to meet.
* Edwin Tanji is a former city editor of The Maui News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. "Haku Mo'olelo," "writing stories," is about stories that are being written or have been written. It appears every Friday.