Correlation Isn’t Causation But Sometimes It’s Close

The recent report from the SAT folks comes as no surprise to those of us teaching first year courses at American public universities. The quality of student writing has plummeted over the last 15 years. Gone are the days when my class grades resemble anything close to a bell curve. Of 51 essays this semester, 26 earned Ds or Fs. Understand that I’m not some unreasonable jerk when I grade papers. I have a clear set of guidelines and reasonable expectations for first year college student writing based on skill sets students will need to succeed both at the university level and after college. Despite what my current students think, there was a time when I recorded double digit As and Bs in English 1301.

The problem with the essays isn’t necessarily critical thinking skills. Eighteen year old thinking hasn’t changed all that dramatically over the course of time. Much like I was back in the day, 18 year olds are vague, focused on being the hero of their own narrative, and they have a difficult time thinking about the world outside of the limited sphere of their experiences. There might be more to the world than is contained in their philosophies, but damned if most of them are much interested in exploring that planet. Such things are reserved for older, more mature people like professors and parents.

Instead, what has changed dramatically are the number of students who struggle to write complete sentences, follow any logical grammatical structure, or recognize the way words work. Language, as I’ve written before, helps us organize the world. Grammar serves as a shared system allowing us to communicate and, hopefully, understand content and intent. “Rules” can change over the course of time, but that change comes slowly and represents cultural shifts in the way we think and communicate. In essence, things like commas serve a purpose beyond indicating the moment you ran out of breath while reading the sentence. If not, smokers, asthmatics, and distance runners would never understand each other’s writing, and lord knows how the slow-breathing yoga instructor might write.

I realize I sound like a grumpy old fart who is arguing that back in my day, kids where smarter (and stay off my lawn you whippersnapper). We are seeing, though, evidence that this trend isn’t just my imagination.

Terrence Stutz, writing for the Dallas Morning News, tells us “Students across the U.S. saw their scores in math drop slightly. But the long-standing achievement gap between Texas and the nation grew significantly this year.”  In fact, as you dig deeper into the numbers (provided in a chart at the bottom of Stutz’s article) you can see Texas SAT scores consistently below the U.S. average with increasingly precipitous drops in recent years.

The falling SAT scores mirror declining scores on the ACT reported last year. 

I admit that test scores only tell part of the story, but we do ourselves a disservice if we ignore that part of the story. Test scores like the SAT and ACT do provide us with long-term comparisons since the exams remain largely the same over the course of time. Hence, generational shifts in performance indicate trends worth noting.

In many ways, though, what’s notable about the declining test scores isn’t the slow but steady drop in performance over the last 9 years.

Instead, we are afforded an opportunity to review the failure of political philosophy writ large on our educational landscape. Texas, as you see from Stutz’s article, is under performing in relatively dramatic ways. We are, it seems, racing our way to the bottom. Texas consistently ranks nearly last or in the bottom half of almost all educational rankings, including spending per pupil.

We are, it seems, getting what we pay for each and every year.

While our state leaders attribute the declining scores in Texas to an increase in students (in particular low performing students) taking the exams, Stutz shows us that California (yes, Governor Perry, California) is outperforming Texas, even though our test takers have a similar demographic make-up. In other words, when you control for increased test takers and ethnicity, California is out performing our students. I wish our Governor was as eager to compete educationally as he is when he tries to lure new businesses to Texas.

If we can’t take the easy way out and blame minority students, perhaps we can at least recognize the correlation between Republican educational policy and academic achievement.

The current class of students taking the SAT and ACT tests were born in the mid-1990s. Despite a slight rise in math scores a few years ago, test scores have been steadily and consistently trending downward.

George Bush became Governor in 1988. Republicans seized control control of Texas politics with their gerrymandered districts after the 1990 census. In the last 24 years, every major political office in the state has been controlled by a Republican. School funding has been cut per pupil every legislative session. Our small government Republicans have demanded increased “accountability” and emphasized a desire to create “efficiencies.” We’ve been requiring minimum skills testing (TAKS, STARR, etc) at astronomical rates because, in many ways, our state leaders have almost no faith in school teachers to do their jobs, and we have a Texas Board of Education that has grown increasingly politicized and exerted greater and greater control over text book and curricular decisions, spending hours upon hours demanding science classes teach creation theory (a religious belief that by definition depends on faith) instead of teaching actual science.

Can we finally recognize those are failed policies and ideas? We have test scores from a generation of students who were educated under our Republican state leadership (and No Child Left Behind–President Bush’s signature education reform based on his policies as Governor of Texas). The results aren’t pretty.

Education is a messy and difficult process. Teaching requires patience, time, and an ability to recognize standardization reaches the middle. More importantly, when we rush the process, we skip the essential and fundamental skills students need to organize and articulate ideas. Overcrowded classrooms, poorly paid teachers, loss of autonomy, and the politicization of education under our Republican leaders has left my students unprepared and with false expectations. Just as importantly, fewer and fewer of our best and brightest see returning to the classroom as a viable career choice. In essence, we have less well prepared students taught by increasingly incapable teachers.

I fully understand that correlation isn’t causation; however, correlation does matter.

Our Republican leaders in Texas are more than happy to take credit for unbridled growth in incomes among our wealthiest citizens and for our better than perfect business climate. It’s only fair, I say, they shoulder the blame for the consistent drop in the quality of our students as they move into the university.

Educational achievement is complicated and we can rarely attribute success or failure to one single moment in time, and I don’t pretend that I have the solution to what ails us.

But, I do feel pretty confident I can tell what doesn’t work when I start grading papers each semester.

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About John Wegner
John Wegner is a Professor of English where he also serves as the Dean of the Freshman College. He and Lana, his wife, have been married over 25 years. They are the parents of two great sons who (so far) haven't ever needed bail money.

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Things I Read

And Things I Learned

Washington Monthly

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Joanne Jacobs

Thinking and Linking by Joanne Jacobs

Inside Higher Ed

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

FiveThirtyEight

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Balloon Juice

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Scott Adams' Blog

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

The Full Feed from HuffingtonPost.com

Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes.)

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