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OpEdNews Op Eds    H4'ed 8/28/12

Silent Alarms About American Education

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Message Patrick Mattimore
A couple of national education stories published last week should set off some alarm bells, but probably won't.  ACT, one of the two largest purveyors of college admissions tests (along with the College Board) revealed that in 2012 for the second year in a row, only 25% of all ACT-tested high school graduates met the College Readiness Benchmarks in English, math, reading, and science.

ACT defines college and career readiness as "the acquisition of the knowledge and skills a student needs to enroll and succeed in credit-bearing first-year courses at a postsecondary institution (such as a 2- or 4-year college, trade school, or technical school) without the need for remediation."

ACT determines if students are college ready with empirically derived benchmarks on ACT subject area tests. The test benchmarks are indicative of whether a student has a 50% chance of obtaining a B or higher or about a 75% chance of obtaining a C or higher in corresponding credit-bearing first-year college courses. In other words, 75% of students taking ACT's college admissions tests cannot be expected to achieve even minimal competencies when and if they go to college.

Last October, the College Board reported that only 43 percent of college-bound seniors met the SAT College and Career Readiness Benchmark in 2011.

A second education story making headlines was the release of the annual PDK/Gallup Poll of the Public's Attitudes Toward the Public Schools. There were many interesting findings from the poll but perhaps the most intriguing is that respondents  graded their local schools much more positively than they graded public schools nationally.

When asked what grade respondents would give schools in their community -- A, B, C, D, or Fail, 48% graded local schools A or B. When asked about schools nationally, only 19% of schools received A or B.

Now that's a problem. Or rather it's a logical inconsistency unless everyone responding is from Garrison Keillor's fictional town of Lake Wobegon where all the children (and presumably schools) are above average.

An explanation for why Americans rate their own schools much higher than they rate schools nationally is cognitive bias in various forms. Call it the "better than average effect," or a "superiority bias". In either case, Americans' beliefs about their local schools have little to do with any specialized knowledge and a great deal to do with wishful thinking.

Since 1959, ACT has collected and reported data on students' academic readiness for college and PDK/Gallup has reported public attitudes about schools for 44 years. The results have been depressingly consistent with large majorities of high school seniors inadequately prepared, yet intent on taking the next academic step, and a public incapable of distinguishing magical hopes from hard-headed realities.

Like background noise which initially annoys us but to which our senses subsequently adapt, we have accepted a mediocre public school education system that fails the majority of our students. What's worse, we delude ourselves into believing that while the system may not be working just right for everyone else it does just fine for us.

Patrick Mattimore

The author taught high school for many years in the San Francisco Bay Area and is now an adjunct professor of law in Beijing, China.

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Freelance journalist; fellow, Institute for Analytic Journalism.
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