Do we need neutral and reliable credential tests for high school and college graduates?

Coronapanic has shut down America’s schools and/or turned them into pale online shadows of their former selves. It is now exactly one year since unionized public schools in Maskachusetts shut down, for example, and they’re not back to fully open. Many colleges remain shut.

Our MIT ground school moved from a three-day in-person class to a five-day online class. We have an objective measurement of student learning: the FAA knowledge test and/or the practice tests offered by companies such as King. Educational outcomes as measured by these tests were lower compared to when the class was in person. Apparently it is not compelling to stare at a screen for hour after hours.

Given that nobody can tell who has learned what anymore, could this be the time to develop and market neutral third-party assessments. From “Universities and Economic Growth”:

I once asked a group of professors at Makerere University in Uganda “How come more people fail the Microsoft Certified Systems Engineer test than your most advanced computer science course?” It would seem that the answer is that the MCSE, which tests the ability to do basic Windows administration, is graded by an impartial computer system.

For young people who want to prove that, contrary to appearances, they actually learned something during the Age of Panic and Shutdown, why not a test of the stuff that high schools and/or colleges are supposed to teach?

For high schools, I guess one could argue that we already have AP tests. But not every high school student takes AP classes. The book Academically Adrift describes the use of the Collegiate Learning Assessment. New York State has the Regents exams. Perhaps these could be adapted for nationwide use?

Readers: What do you think? Has the shutdown produced enough uncertainty that this old idea can thrive?

The Southside elementary school in Sarasota, which my local source says is the place that you’d want your kids to go (NYT says Florida schools are generally more effective than the U.S. average).

Will there be a nationwide high school achievement test in place by the time these 5th graders get their diplomas?


24 thoughts on “Do we need neutral and reliable credential tests for high school and college graduates?

  1. As much as I like meritocratic education the best way to enhance it is NOT to impose it on everyone. College admissions already have ACT, SAT, AP test and subject Olympiads. If anything college qualification testing is being watered down now that subject SAT is cancelled. Why make future owner of a landscaping business go over semantics? Environmental engineering degree from sate school and childhood interest and experience is all that is needed.
    Why stop independent computer-based subject testing such as SAT at college gates? Why not continue universal testing through college and academic, teaching and public service carriers? For private enterprises testing should be private decision for each enterprise, short of organizing engineers and accountants similar to medical professionals.

    • LSI: I was thinking it would be voluntary (“could this be the time to develop and market neutral third-party assessments”) and used more by employers. I don’t think it could ever be mandated because our most powerful institutions (K-12 schools and universities) would not want their performance and efficiency being measured!

    • Philip, in software development such testing exists. Every job that I have ever held or interviewed for required either independent vendor technical testing or in-house testing or small projects to complete as a part of interviewing process. Some jobs also required third party certifications. My children’s college admissions and scholarships required resume that included subject Olympiads placements, SAT scores, subject SAT scores, AP test scores, applications/essays/remote evaluation and at least one day of in-person interviews. Maybe this is not MIT experience – from MIT my kid got a call by someone with ADD, after Alumni interview recommendation. Out of personal interest I was near the phone during the conversation – it was sad even comparing to worst industry examples.
      Also, I noticed that my relative rank growth in time as new candidates take tests: I got into top 1 percent of some dbms DBA purely based on my system and code parallelization and optimization experience – I have never worked as a DBA. My rank started in top 20% and grew as many others tested.

    • @Low Skilled: “Every job that I have ever held or interviewed for required either independent vendor technical testing or in-house testing or small projects to complete as a part of interviewing process. Some jobs also required third party certifications. ”

      The last job I applied for required, of course, an extensive written job application, but also, three writing samples and in-house testing if called to HQ for an interview. And, post-job offer but before starting work, a clean urinalysis, academic/employment/reference/credit/criminal background checks; and, finally, a acquisition of a rigorous third-party certification w/i one year of hire date. This was 15 years ago for a $60,000 per year non-security clearance job.

    • ^I was happy to go through all the hoops because I knew those same hoops would weed out many, if not most, other competitors for the job. And the manager that hired me eventually told me the same.

    • Deplorable Prole, yes, clearance jobs are the one requiring certifications within few month since hire. In my case I have done 15 years of consulting and sub-contracting, regular contract duration 6 months up to 2.5 years, no breaks in-between except vacations, average contract time 1.5 years. Every interview consists of tests, from technical system specific to algorithmic to development projects to math/hardware principles/business. There are many third party vendors. One example of development testing vendors is I have taken from at least 3 more vendors which names I forgot and also from companies – standardized from GAFAM and other companies, as well as just virtual environments and special laptops with projects in-house and home projects from yet another class of employers. Yes, for full time jobs too, but I do not change them that often… Probably before accepting each contract offer I interviewed in person at at least 2 more places post-testing… So lot’s of testing. Low Skilled Immigrant – that’s how bigwigs treated me at bonus time before I decided to move to contracting.

  2. It is very wrong not to have a standard test and sticking with it as a requirement to graduate from public or private H.S.. Many countries have this requirement and some will not let you apply into a major at a collage unless your grades meet the requirement (they only look at your standardize test score, not some other BS achievements or accomplishments). This is how you keep a high standard.

    If anyone objects to this, then take the following as an example which you should not object to. Would you want to invest your money in a stock fund that has risky companies or investments? Are you OK to risk it all for such a fund? Last time we let this unchecked with subprime mortgages [1] we saw how bad it can get and who truly got burned (hint: not your rich guy who runs the funds).


    • Not sure that I understood this: “It is very wrong not to have a standard test and sticking with it as a requirement to graduate from public or private H.S.” US has standard college admissions test such as ACT and SAT but they are being watered down, not strengthened: other subjects then math and reading (i.e. physics, chemistry, comp. sci, etc…) SAT tests were cancelled this year and many private colleges reduce weight they give ACT/SAT testing results in their decision to admit a student. Few years back subjects SAT test scores were a must to get into a selective college.
      Subprime mortgages were not risky, they were certain to fail. I do make risky investment, just not into those who are sure to go caput.

    • Patrick: I was thinking more along the lines of competency tests (can you perform a task) rather than the multiple-choice “standardized tests” that are, indeed, tools of white supremacy. We are informed by the media that companies with more employees who identify as something other than “white male” perform better. Therefore, I think it is safe to say that employees who identify as something other than “white male” are more competent and a competency test should reflect that.

    • Philig: But unless the “competency test” was created by a suitably diverse committee, wouldn’t it tend to be biased and just end up as another tool to perpetuate the White Patriarchy? “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.” in memorable words of Justice Sotomayor. Why should competency landing an airplane in a crosswind, for example, be judged only by the white male oppressor class?

    • It’s a fallacy that competency or achievement tests are any different from aptitude, intelligence, IQ, or cognitive ability tests. The rank order of people in the results ends up being the same.

      It turns out that people who study and remember “stuff” are the same people who are “smart,” especially in high-stakes situations.

      There’s a saying that “All standardized tests are IQ tests, with varying amounts of noise” (in the statistics sense of noise).

      Some hilarious real world examples of this are fire and police promotion tests. These started out as basically IQ tests. The results were not “equitable,” so there were lawsuits. The tests became practical knowledge tests. Same results.

      What ends up happening is that some sort of test is given, and a low “pass” score is set. Anyone who passes is “qualified.” Then some mysterious selection process happens that in its results is indistinguishable from a quota system, with groups assigned certain percentages and within groups, selection by test score.

  3. Even if you like your standardized you can’t keep them because they are racist!

  4. Such tests all just hint at ‘g’ with varying levels of success. You could probably put together a dead simple test with three noodle-scratchers, “What body of water does the Mississippi empty into? What is a prime number? Name one of the fudamental forces of physics.” …and as long as they were administered fairly, you could get something more valuable than high school grades–for discovering raw potential.

    (High school grades will indicate other things as well–perserverance, obediance, etc.)

    • onetwothree , are you implicitly state that questions in you suggestion have correct answer?
      You do not even realize how subjective they are and depend on interviewee’s values and system of coordinates. If you add ” and there is no wrong answer” then I am onboard with it.

  5. There’s already a test like that for engineering: the Fundamentals of Engineering exams, developed and administered by NCEES, are the first of two exams that must be passed to get a state license as a professional engineer. Perhaps uniquely among professional licensing exams, the FE exams cover only topics that should have been included in the undergraduate curriculum.

    Some colleges and universities look at the FE passing rate among their graduates as a self-assessment measure, and potential employers—at least in fields such as civil engineering where licensure is key to professional advancement—definitely look for “E.I.T.” or “P.E.” on resumes.

    Many (perhaps most) graduate engineers plan to work in situations where licenses are not required, however, and never take any of the exams—though some institutions encourage all their engineering students at least to attempt the FE.

  6. After all this time and careful consideration, I have decided @GB who occasionally comments here in terse and dismissive expressions of dismay, has actually been correct all along. I’ve had a few conversations today that have cemented my view. He’s right: Baby boomers sitting at home watching the Internet – especially liberal ones – are responsible for approximately 200% of the garbage that we’re seeing. I think if we disconnected them from the Internet for about 3 months, everything would return to normal all by itself. They are all just insufferably full of shit, and have nothing better to do than sit around and talk about it while pushing their agendas. It’s not even Trump! He wasn’t their reason for being.

    Their reason for being is to talk to themselves and, as Alexis de Tocqueville once wrote, to:

    “…went their pomposity from one end of a harangue to the other.”

    • …Sorry, “…vent” not “went”. We can’t edit here, so we do what we can.

      Here’s the full quote, in context. Ubiquitous high-speed Internet for the Boomers and nothing but time on their hands is the cause of everything we see.

      “I have frequently noticed that the Americans, who generally treat of business in clear, plain language, devoid of all ornament and so extremely simple as to be often coarse, are apt to become inflated as soon as they attempt a more poetical diction. They then vent their pomposity from one end of a harangue to the other; and to hear them lavish imagery on every occasion, one might fancy that they never spoke of anything with simplicity.”

  7. @observer – I graduated from Ga Tech back when it was Georgia Institute of Technology, and took an engineering job that did not require licensing. My career advanced some and I was managing contracts for engineering and architectural services, so I embarked on registering as a P.E. to enhance my peering relationships. I took the EIT (I guess that is the FE now?) at age 43, and upon passing that took the PE exam in Mechanical Engineering, barely passing that and obtaining the registration. I was surprised how rigorous the PE exam was, the exercises typically equivalent to midterm or final exams in senior courses. Going in, I thought the registration exam was for professional ethics and protocols, but that was only 20 percent or so. If I had it to do again I wouldn’t wait 20 years!

    Another field with objective tests is FAA-licensed aviation mechanics. There is an “A” (Airframe) and a “P” (Powerplant) exam, and most working aviation mechanics have “A” and “P” licenses that enable them to sign off on many FAA-mandated procedures.

    I suspect both Dr. Biden and Herr Trump would struggle in either field, and congress-critters need not even apply.

  8. In the early ’80s, I was working on my BS Computer Science and decided to take my city’s firefighter exam as a backup plan. I scored no. 1 on the test and was offered the $8/hr job by the mayor. I turned it down to finish my degree, as I planned on a lucrative high-tech corporate career (that didn’t go quite as planned). Other high school grads that took that test along side me, and were smart enough to accept the job offer, were making six figures within ten years and retired at their mid-40s enjoying $75,000 annual pensions. I’ve never earned six figures, still working as I near age 60, and won’t enjoy a defined benefit pension.

    • DP,
      Everyone makes mistakes. I replied to your replies on my comment below but it did not go through, repeatedly. No secrets or malicious exploits were included, not sure why, maybe this blog joined facebook with randomized screening algorithms. Also with lot’s of pre-job testing and interviewing I relatively quickly attained 6 figures but they are not high enough to feel the difference after taxes. I doubt that I can beating of equivalent of $75,000 / year defined benefit if I live as long as other people with my heritage live in the USA, maybe if I work till 80 without getting a pay cut, with all my present and future expenses, very basic at that. Wish I too went unionized first responder when I had a chance.

    • LSI: The server runs the standard Akismet anti-spam plug-in. Maybe if it is run by enough correct-thinking people around the Internet it will naturally censor wrongthink.

    • Philip, according to Akismet site they store “spam” comments in the database. Which implies that they use heuristic and not pure AI. I mentioned testing vendor name which has word hacker in it, another word there is rank. Maybe they do not like the vendor or maybe they screen for the word. Maybe they did not like common acronym acronym for Facebook, Google , Apple, Microsoft, Amazon. Or may be something else offended them. Do they tell what they do with scanned text?

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