The Reality Of The Myth Of Education

Essay, Research Paper

The myth at education has evolved as America has. The myth has reflected a changing society and has met different needs at different times. Before the independence of the country, education was view skeptically. Those who sought the colonies did so for relief from religious oppression and once established in the new world, they used education to reinforce moral and religious lessons. As the country grew so did the role of education.

The first major shift in the role of education came after the Revolutionary War. Soon after our government formed, the leaders of the country, such as Thomas Jefferson, realized the necessity of education for the people of the new state. Government by the people made education of the people vital. The goal of schooling became the creation of uniformly loyal, patriotic Americans (Colombo 55). During those early years education began to carry with it the hope and promise that a penniless boy could become and educated, influential man.

As the gears of the country developed during the Industrial Revolution another change in education occurred. During this period, education tracks were developed. These tracks offered different types of education to different groups of people. Students were placed in tracks based on socio-economic characteristics and natural abilities. Hope still existed for the penniless boy, but now society was beginning to put barriers up against his self-improvement via education (Colombo 56).

Today, Americans continue to believe the myth that education is a path to self-improvement, and that it is a path available to and wide enough for any who choose to take it. This idyllic picture is not one based entirely in reality. Since the Industrial Revolution, barriers in addition to tracks have been put into place. Exceptions do occur and penniless boy do still achieve great things due to education, but the myth is far from reality.

One of the larger modern barriers that stand in the way of the availability of education is the use of standardized tests to determine eligibility for admission to institutions of higher education. These tests, known as the SAT, GRE, ACT, and many others, are required by all but a handful of colleges and universities for admission. Depending on the selectivity of the institution (a characteristic that demonstrates the lack of accessibility for all) the required test score for admission can vary.

Standardized testing moves us further away from the myth of education for all for several reasons. The tests lack validity regarding the prediction of collegiate performance, test scores tend to be highly correlated with socioeconomic levels, and the tests tend to be biased in regard to gender and cultural heritage. These shortcomings are well documented and often discussed in higher education circles, however the public seems to continue to be obsessed with test scores as the golden key to a prosperous future. The test is widely believed to be the key to admission to a selective college, which in turn is widely believed to be the key to a life of prestige and prosperity. People can t help thinking of the score as a permanent measure of their innate worth (Lemann n.pag).

The development of the SAT grew out of one man s vision for a classless society. In 1933, upon becoming president of Harvard, James Conant, decided to start a scholarship program for gifted boys who did not come from the Eastern elite ( A Brief History of the SAT ). Conant found the rise in socialism and even communism at the time very alarming and believed that opportunity and social mobility were the best ways to forestall a national turn to the left. The development of the scholarship program played into his grander plan. By populating Harvard with men chosen for their academic promise, regardless of their background, then eventually the institutions, which employed Harvard graduates, would begin to support the same selection process and be run by Conant s scholars (Lemann n.pag).

In order to select his scholars, Conant charged two of his assistants with the task of finding a test to evaluate students. According to one of the assistants, Henry Chaucey, Conant would repeatedly ask, now are you sure this isn t an achievement test? Are you sure this is a pure aptitude test, pure intelligence? That s what I want to measure, because that is the way I think we can offer poor boys the best chance and take away the advantage of the rich boys (Frontline n.pag). Eventually, the Scholastic Aptitude Test, SAT, ( aptitude meaning innate ability) was settled on and by 1948, the SAT was on its way to becoming the basic college admissions device for millions ( A Brief History of the SAT ).

Today, the test is still called the SAT, but the letters no longer stand for anything. This fact illustrates the uncertainty that surrounds what exactly the test measures. The SAT has been shown to predict only partially how a student will perform during the first year of college. Of the things it takes to do well in school, the SAT is able to predict only 15-18% making it an unreliable gage of a students performance ( What Does the SAT Really Measure? ). When researchers look at the correlation between SAT scores and broader measures of college success or to a student s performance beyond the freshman year, the case for the SAT becomes even weaker. Correlation all but disappears when researchers look at SAT scores and success beyond college and in the workplace. Standardized test scores fail to be predictive of anything beyond one s ability to take standardized tests (Sacks n.pag). For 88% of the applicants, an SAT score will predict their grades no more accurately then a pair of dice (Nairn 65).

As disturbing as the lack of validity of the test is that the correlation between SAT scores and family income is larger than the correlation between SAT scores and freshman grades (Grouse 125). In his 1980 report Ralph Nadar went so far as to say the SAT merely grouped students by income level. Although the evidence stops short of fully supporting Nadar s position, it does demonstrate that the SAT favors students from higher socioeconomic levels. A breakdown of national, state, or even district test scores by family income levels show average test scores increase without fail as family income rises. Nationally, students in the lowest income brackets scored over 250 points below students in the highest income levels (Isger n.pag).

This favoritism for high socioeconomic levels can be attributed to many factors. In his book, Standardized Minds: The High Price of America s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It, Peter Sacks refers to it as the Volvo effect. Characteristics of high socioeconomic families, such as number of degrees earned by parents, type of car driven, vocabulary used in the household, and access to good schools are some of the best predictors of SAT score. As the vocabulary of well-off households is the vocabulary of the test, those students do better, making education more accessible to them and less accessible to students less fortunate (Adelman n.pag). In addition to exposing their children to the vocabulary of the test, high socioeconomic level families are likely to provide their children with books, educational games, and trips to museums. These factors also prepare students for taking the SAT (Isger n.pag). An additional factor making it easier for students from high socioeconomic families to succeed at the SAT is access to coaching. A glance in the yellow pages and a browse in any bookstore will expose one to numerous books and services which will help students learn to take standardized test in general and the SAT in specific. While books are more affordable then coaching sessions, they are also less effective. The oldest test training organization, Kaplan, can charge as much as $600 for test preparation. These costs are out of reach for most middle and low-income families.

The SAT also favors white, male students. The SAT under-predicts the performance of females. A 1994 ETS (Educational Testing Services, the company which distributes the SAT) study found that, on average, males scored 33 points higher on math portion of the SAT than females who earn the same grades in the same college math colleges. The SAT also does not predict the first year grades of Hispanics as accurately as white students. Rigid use of the SAT for college admission would also result in a low representation of minorities as African-Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Native American score significantly lower then white students. Colleges that have eliminated the use of the SAT report a higher level of diversity with no drop of in academic ability ( The SAT: Questions and Answers ). The case to get rid of the SAT seems strong, yet Americans do little to overthrow the mighty SAT.

Americans are obsessed with testing and rankings. From David Letterman s top ten lists to US News and World Reports college rankings, American s seek out rankings. The SAT provides families with a method of ranking not only their children, but also the colleges to which they apply, the schools they attend, and the communities in which they live. Despite the unfair nature of the test, families still place value on the results. And this may be the most destructive aspect of the test. Contrary to the myth of equal education for all and Conant s vision for a classless society, the SAT unfairly pigeon holes students based on factors outside of innate ability and educational background.

With the value and importance of a college degree rising every year, many families hope their children will consider higher education. The SAT unfairly influences which students will consider higher education, where they can get education, how much financial aid they will receive for that education, and most unfairly, the SAT influences students perceptions of the type of potential they have and what they will be able to do with that potential (Nairn n.pag).

In order for the myth of education to become reality, new methods of assessment must be developed and implemented. Assessment based on performance would bring us closer to an equitable solution, more importantly, providing equal education at all levels for all who seek it is the only way to insure the myth will be reality.

Works Cited

A Brief History of SAT. Frontline. April 20, 2000. .

Adelman, Clifford. Why Can t We Stop Talking About the SAT? The Chronicle of Education 5 November 1999. 20 April 2000 .

Colombo, Cullen, and Bonnie Lisle. Rereading America. Boston, Bedford Books: 1998.

Frontline. Interview with Nicholas Lemann, 20 Apr 2000, .

Grouse, James. The Case Against the SAT. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Isger, Sonja. Best Predictors of SAT Success Are Parents Income, Education. Palm Beach Post 25 January 1997: A1.

Lemann, Nicholas. Behind the SAT. Newsweek 20 April 2000. .

Nairn, Allan & Associates. The Corporation that Makes Up Minds. Washington D.C.: The Ralph Nadar Report on the Educational Testing Service, 1980.

Sacks, Peter. Meritocracy s Crooked Yardstick. Standardized Minds: The High Price of America s Testing Culture and What We Can Do to Change It. April 20, 2000. .

The SAT: Questions and Answers. The National Center for Fair and Open Testing: April 20, 2000 .

What Does the SAT Really Measure? Frontline. April 20, 2000 .


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