Sunday, April 1, 2012

Veritas Article: 3/30

The Downfalls of Standardized Testing, published in Veritas on 3/30

I recently took my senior comprehensive exam for my Sociology major. Although this test no longer has any weight in determining graduation or Latin honors eligibility, it is still used by the department to estimate effectiveness of the faculty in teaching core and common courses. This is done by comparing scores across many colleges and universities, but only those that use the same measure from ETS can be included. Even this comparison is difficult because each college and university has a unique set of faculty, courses, and curriculum. This is concerning because such standardized tests have the propensity to lead to a standardized curriculum and it is my opinion that a standardized curriculum does not encourage true learning.

There are many different tests that serve as standards of learning. Typically, one of two types is used: achievement or aptitude. All students are familiar with both. Achievement tests measure “the skill or knowledge attained by an individual in one or more fields of study.” Achievement tests include the SOL in Virginia, the PSSA in Pennsylvania, the MSA and HSA in Maryland, and the NJASK in New Jersey, as well as my senior comprehensive exam. Aptitude tests “predict an individual’s ability to learn certain skills.” These include the SAT, the GRE, the LSAT, and the PRAXIS. There are also intelligence tests, used “to determine the relative mental capacity of a person to learn,” but we won’t worry about those right now. (Definitions taken from

So what are the downfalls of standardized testing, such as achievement tests? First, as mentioned above, standardized achievement tests encourage the development of a standardized curriculum. Such a curriculum will most likely focus on the memorization of facts, because this is more conducive to multiple-choice tests. This is not genuine learning. Sure, rote memorization might help you win some games of at-home jeopardy or learn simple job skills, but critical thinking and other abstract skills provide far more opportunities. Related to this is the second downfall: achievement tests cannot measure such abstract skills. This means that reward emphasis is placed on rote memorization and students that excel in abstract areas over fact knowledge may be overlooked or underestimated.

Third, achievement tests determine funding eligibility and job security, which means that standardization is valued more than creativity and unique thought. Fourth, achievement tests encourage teachers to teach to the test so that their students will perform better in order to meet funding eligibility and job security requirements. Again, this leads to rote memorization and generally disengaged students. Even though curriculum currently includes subject matter that is not included on the achievement test, teachers tend to divide material into what will and will not be included in the test. Additionally, teachers tend to devote a great deal of time to review, which leads to the fifth downfall: measuring crammed knowledge does not measure truly retained knowledge and such tests may favor students who are more inclined to such study methods. And sixth, such pressure to perform well in order to secure funding and teaching jobs may encourage students to cheat.

Seventh, achievement tests create a disadvantage for a variety of students, such as those who are not good test takers or strong readers or those who are more active and do not want to sit still all day. And eighth, standardization through achievement tests tends to encourage tracking and labeling. Personally, I see tracking as a way of creating pigeonholes and boxes that students must fit into. I was homeschooled, so I do not have personal experience with this phenomenon, but as a student who was average in math and excelled in other areas, I can imagine how tracking would not have served me well. Had my curriculum been based on my math knowledge, I would have been bored in other subjects. Had my curriculum been based on my writing and reading abilities, I would have been frustrated with higher-level math. Achievement tests are likely to lead to students being reduced to a single number, whether a test score or a performance level, and this serves as a way of stereotyping students and ignoring individual differences in learning style, talent, and interest. These stereotypes can also serve as labels. For example, if a student is placed in the “turtle” group and if this student comes to believe that he or she is a slow student, he or she will probably never strive to excel and may never reach his or her full potential.

Many of the above downfalls similarly apply to aptitude tests, the effectiveness of which is quite controversial. Essentially, aptitude tests such as the SAT are designed to predict a student’s ability to learn and succeed. In a sense, they can be thought of as a measure of a student’s effectiveness at being a student. But how accurate are such measures? Probably not very. For example, I have a friend whose SAT score could have secured him a full scholarship at any school. He chose not to attend college and is now living on his own and making music because this is what he wanted to do with his talents and interests. However, many view him as a poor student because of this decision, even though he is still extremely intelligent. Further, the high pressure on students to do well on the SAT in order to secure admission to and scholarships for college can lead to a great deal of stress and concern. For example, I took my SAT three times in order to increase my eligibility for scholarships and, to this day, I despise scantrons.

So what should we do? Reducing the emphasis on standardization does not need to eliminate standards altogether. But let us take a lesson from alternative methods of education. My mother certainly never taught to the test, but I scored extremely well on achievement tests, which are required in Pennsylvania for all students in third, fifth, and eighth grades. There may have been some detailed facts that I could not recite, but I knew enough and could think well enough to excel in these measures. Similarly, such an emphasis on standardization can actually decrease the standards and expectations we hold of our students. We are indoctrinating them with the belief that it is more important to memorize and recite than to think and reason and we will soon experience an extreme shortage of creative thinkers because of this. Now, before it is too late, we must encourage these creative thinkers to remain outside of the box, empower others to do the same, and alter society’s view of education being all about the test score.

Veritas Article: 3/23

The Positivity of Negative Rights, published in Veritas on 3/23

A few weeks ago, I attended the Fifth Annual International Students for Liberty Conference, which was held at the Grand Hyatt in Washington, D.C., from February 17-19. It was an incredible experience, primarily because there were over one thousand students, alumni, staff, speakers, and presenters, all of whom shared a common bond: an interest in liberty and a desire to remedy the broken political system of the U.S. Even though the details of our political philosophies varied, we were not divided by dogma because we were united through common action.

Aside from this spirit of community, another highlight of ISFLC was the various breakout sessions that students could attend. These sessions were hosted by a variety of organizations, such as the Atlas Network, the CATO Institute, the Foundation for Economic Education, GOProud, the Institute for Humane Studies, Students for Liberty, and Young Americans for Liberty. I attended a number of sessions, including What is Austrian Economics?, Behind Canada: America’s Decline in Economic Freedom, Government Schooling for a Free Society?, Liberaltarians: Examining Liberty Through the Gender/Race/Class Lens, Law Enforcement Socialism, and The Militarization of Main Street.

One of my favorite sessions was titled, Can We Kill the Children from Salem? This session was sponsored by the Institute of Humane Studies and featured James Stacey Taylor, a professor of philosophy at The College of New Jersey. Taylor spoke about negative and positive rights: what they accomplish, how they interact, and how they are different. He started with a historical overview of moral and legal rights. First, Immanuel Kant said that we should believe in natural rights because we need certain goods to have a flourishing life, such as property, autonomy, expression, interaction, and so on. He also believed that all people are morally equivalent, therefore allowing acquired goods to be legitimately protected from force by force and requiring all people to recognize the equal rights of others. Second, Thomas Hobbes thought that natural rights may not exist, but that this was irrelevant because all people are mutually vulnerable. This view leads to rights based upon reciprocity, in that all people must respect others in a way that they want to be respected. Later, John Stuart Mills combined these philosophies in his harm principle, saying that acting as if all people have natural rights is the best way to ensure natural rights and promote flourishing lives.

Taylor then went on to compare negative and positive rights. Simply stated, negative rights are freedoms from, whereas positive rights are freedoms to. For example, under negative rights, you have the right to be free from interference by others (interference in healthcare, property, income, etc.) and others have a duty to refrain from interfering with those things. On the other hand, under positive rights, you have the right to have free access to such things and others have a duty to provide such things to you. After giving this overview, Taylor used two audience members to illustrate how positive rights encroach upon negative rights.

Phil has money and his negative right says that others have the duty to refrain from taking his money. Justin has no money and his positive rights say that others have the duty to provide money to him. This is accomplished by taking Phil's money, thus violating Phil’s negative rights in order to provide for Justin’s positive rights. This means that negative and positive rights cannot exist at the same time and that we must choose to support one or the other. Personally, along with Taylor and most other conference attendees, I am a supporter of negative rights because they seem more basic and fundamental and therefore more natural and legitimate.

However, the U.S. is a land of regulation and welfare that is based primarily on positive rights and results in extremely limited negative rights. The positive right to regulated food that has been deemed as safe violates my negative right from interference in my desire to purchase raw milk or sell homemade lemonade. The positive right to relatively equal access to money violates my negative right from interference in my earned income. The positive right to protection from violent crime violates my negative right from interference in my self-protection through gun ownership.

Even so, I will not say that positive rights are all bad, because they probably are not. Additionally, certain rights can be either negative or positive: the right from interference in speaking freely and the right to free speech. The difference is that the basis of negative rights is freedom from interference, whereas the basis of positive rights is freedom to providence. Providence implies privilege and privileges are granted, not inherent. Thus, when the provided positive rights of one person violate the basic, fundamental negative rights of another person, we will know that the positive rights have gone too far.