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The Alabama High School Exit Exam Flaws Demonstrate
the Far More Serious Flaws In the Curriculum Itself

Rick Garlikov

The Alabama State Department of Education seems to have lost sight of its real purpose, and, with the unveiling of its new high school exit exam, is merely increasing its efforts to substitute schooling for education. The new graduation exam dramatically shows the difference between the two. Most adults, even with college degrees, and no matter how well-educated, successful, or productive, could probably not pass the exam. And passing the exam will not mean one is the kind of student that employers or college professors prefer.

The goals of public education ought to be to use reasonably available community resources (1) to help students develop (to their potentials) into decent, successful, productive, competent, contributing members of the community in regard to their personal, civic, social, and economic lives, and (2) to help students develop (to their potentials) their worthwhile talents, abilities, and interests in order to be self-fulfilled, deserving individuals as well -- people "happy" in the Aristotelian sense (at least) of having stimulating and gratifying activities of the soul in conformity with virtue and excellence.

But the new high school graduation exam does not test for criteria relevant to either of these goals. Instead it asks for the recall or knowledge of very specific, often esoteric and/or trivial facts. And even where the subject matter is of general importance, the test for it is unrelated to how it is important. "Language" is treated as a matter of grammar, punctuation, and writing styles - often with regard to unusual and uninteresting sentences isolated from any context. "Reading" involves answering typical school-type questions about passages from prose or poetry. Neither involves testing for the ability to understand, think, and communicate clearly about meaningful, creative, original, or even familiar, ideas, concepts, phenomena, and experiences. 

The science exam tests for the recall of specialized, often trivial scientific facts and vocabulary, not for any real understanding of scientific ideas or principles. The social studies exam asks for recall of esoteric, often unimportant, facts and quasi-interpretive knowledge, usually in the form of knowledge of conventional or cliche interpretations, whether reasonable or not. The Birmingham News reported one sample social studies question about a trivial, narrow matter of law that many attorneys themselves don't know the answer to, though they can come up with various reasonable hypotheses; and the answer given in the News was itself incorrect, reportedly from the study guide issued by the State Department of Education. That question was "Why is your Alabama driver's license valid when you drive in Georgia?" The answer given was "The 'full faith and credit' clause of the United States Constitution". But since states do not honor all certification and licensing of other states, that clause, by itself, cannot bind Georgia to honor an Alabama driver's license any more than it allows Alabama attorneys to practice law in Georgia. The real answer can be found in an obscure part of the Code of Alabama 1975; Section 32-6-10 states "The Director of Public Safety is hereby empowered to enter into reciprocal agreements, when not in conflict with law, with other states or countries constituting an exchange of rights or privileges in the use of drivers' licenses within this state by people who hold a valid driver's license in another state or country...." It is these reciprocal agreements among states, not the United States Constitution, that allow your driver's license to be valid on Georgia roads and for Georgia drivers' licenses to be valid in Alabama.

But the point is that, surely, questions such as these cannot serve as the measure of a reasonable and decent education into economic, civic, and community life. Get yourself copies of the Alabama State Department of Education High School Graduation Exam Practice Exercises for all the various areas that will be tested; read and answer all the sample questions; and then judge for yourself whether they serve as the criteria for people you would want to hire, work with, or teach if you were a college professor. I think the answer will clearly be "no." A test that measures unimportant aspects of learning can never be an important measure of the quality of education. 

Moreover, exams such as this one will not even serve as a sampling of the effectiveness of students' schooling, let alone their education, because, as with every other "high stakes" test, teachers and commercial student testing-preparation companies will begin to "psyche out" the tests by figuring out what will be on them, and teach a narrower curriculum than is taught in courses -- they will teach "to" the tests, rather than teaching the subject matter more generally. Scores will improve as time goes on, not because students will have learned more science or social studies or grammar, but because they will have learned more about the things most likely asked on the test. The history of tests of this sort is that their results tend to become corrupted because they no longer serve as a random sampling of student learning but are taught to some students as a separate, often time-consuming part of the curriculum or of students' personal study time. The extreme case of teaching "to" tests in this way is to teach a copy of the test itself. That would, of course, be cheating. Well, narrowing the field of study to what will most likely be covered on the test is cheating in the same way, only to a slightly lesser extent. The test then is a test of what has been learned from the narrower curriculum; it is not a random sampling of what a student has learned from study of the full high school curriculum.

But issues about the validity and reasonableness of the specific test aside, the test is very indicative of the real, far more serious problem - the emptiness and irrelevance of the typical high school curriculum, where much of the school day, and evening homework, is spent on specific, esoteric facts that are of little importance or significance to anyone outside the subject-matter field. Even in courses that could contain significant subject matter, the important content is usually hidden from students because it is presented along with a mountain of other, generally insignificant, facts that prevent students from spending the proper time to examine any of them in a way that would help them find ideas that are interesting, memorable, or useful. The only justification for teaching much of the content taught in school is that it is important to know for tests. And the tests are only important for determining what students have learned in school and for trying to force them to learn more of it. It is a pointless circle that has no meaning outside of the "educational" system itself. Look at virtually any school textbooks or any tests your children have in school, and examine any standardized tests such as the College Board tests, the ACT, or the Stanford Achievement Tests, and you will see relatively little material and few questions that have anything to do with real life or with skills that are readily applicable to real life. (And where they do involve skills and knowledge applicable to real life, you will probably be able to think of subject matter that would more directly and reasonably teach them.) At the same time, you will see that your children, even when they finish high school, even if they make very good grades, are often quite naive and uninformed about how the world works - unless they have learned about it from you or from somewhere outside of school. That is why "schooling" is different from education, with only a minimally sufficient overlap to give the impression that school is about education. Children do learn some things that are important and useful from their schooling; but the problem is that the State curriculum contains relatively far too few such things in proportion to the overwhelming amount of unnecessary and diversionary material it compels to be taught. And this wastes far too much of the time, energy, and effort teachers, students, and the community invest in the enterprise -- resources that could be better put to use actually educating children.

I believe that education and learning is extremely important, but that current schools too often are not places of real learning or of meaningful education. I believe that schools should be places that inspire curiosity and the desire to learn and that give students the tools to be able to learn as much as they can on their own; but schools don't often do that. While some children are safer and more nurtured at their schools than they would be at home, many schools tend to enervate or burn-out students, stifle any curiosity or desire to learn that they may have had, and to actually impede maturation, as students are taught to memorize facts and ideas that make no sense to them and to blindly obey rules promulgated more for administrative efficiency than for the encouragement of reflective thought, cooperation, communication, and the development of responsible independence and emotionally mature autonomy. The new Alabama High School Graduation Exam will not do anything to change that, and will, if anything, simply exacerbate the problem because it will encourage even more the teaching of meaningless or esoteric facts and discourage even further the teaching of material meant to foster independent thinking, meaningful understanding, and useful skills for discovery, creativity, communication, cooperation, and living. The serious problems in Alabama schools are neither faced nor addressed by the new High School Graduation Exam, and the money, effort, and time spent in preparing students for the exam, and reporting its results to the public, will probably camouflage the more serious underlying problems and further preclude their being noticed, addressed, and solved.

This work is available here free, so that those who cannot afford it can still have access to it, and so that no one has to pay before they read something that might not be what they really are seeking.  But if you find it meaningful and helpful and would like to contribute whatever easily affordable amount you feel it is worth, please do do.  I will appreciate it. The button to the right will take you to PayPal where you can make any size donation (of 25 cents or more) you wish, using either your PayPal account or a credit card without a PayPal account.


By "pass", I mean get a score of at least 70%.  The most recent newspaper reports indicate the State Department of Education may accept a much lower score as "passing".   If so, the claim that the exam is the toughest in the nation will be meaningless even if true, since it will not require doing particularly well on it to pass it. 

And, furthermore, if they set the bar at a level that will graduate a certain pre-determined high percentage of students who have been taught by current practices, it will not serve as an incentive for overall improvement, and will only serve to show the very weakest schools or students (those performing poorly both in schooling and in education), which we probably do not really need a test to identify in the first place.

Finally, since the exam is multiple choice, that means you will get a certain percent of the answers correct by probability (25% if there are four answer options; 20% if there are five answer options). The math exam required a score of close to 50%.  There were, I think, four answer options for each question: a, b, c, or d.  If so that means, if a student knows 34% of the math involved, he will likely pass by guessing about the 66% of the test he does not know how to do.  25% of 66/100 questions will yield 16 correct answers, which added to the 34 s/he knows, will give the student the 50% score necessary. I am told the math exam tests something like 1/20th of the math curriculum.  If so, then the student only needs to know 34% of 5% of the math curriculum, which is 1.7% of the math curriculum to pass the high school exit exam that "shows" the student is capable in math.

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