Kenneth Bernstein, a retired award-winning high-school teacher, recently issued a warning, first in Academe and then reprinted in The Washington Post: Professors beware—students educated under the No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top policies are heading your way.
Bernstein explained, “I want to warn you of what to expect from the students who will be arriving in your classroom, even if you teach in a highly selective institution.”
He was right to warn us, except for one error: Those students have already arrived. Very bright students now come to college and even law school ill-prepared for critical thinking, rigorous reading, high-level writing, and working independently.
Bernstein described what many college professors and even graduate-school professors have come to know firsthand. For more than a decade, a culture of test taking and teaching to the test has dominated elementary and secondary education in the United States, even at elite public and private schools. And now its effects are being felt by professors.
At the Association of American Law Schools conference in January, a number of professors voiced concern about these cultural shifts, their impacts in the classroom, and law schools’ roles in perpetuating the trends by placing high value on LSAT scores. According to some conference participants, students’ writing skills are the worst they have ever encountered. Moreover, they complain that students are less sheepish and more blatant about just wanting “the answers.” The challenge of learning on their own is so overwhelming to some law students that it has become far more common for students to demand their professors’ notes.
One professor at a top-20 law school recently confided that he has to teach his students how to write business letters. A professor at another elite school complained that grading exams is far more difficult now because the writing skills of students are so deficient that each exam requires several reads. Bernstein’s article suggests that he knows what accounts for this—federal education policy. He may be right.
Teaching to the test is increasingly the dominant approach even in Advanced Placement courses taken for college credit. As teachers and their schools are evaluated and even ranked in magazines on how well students perform on tests, the emphasis at the ground level has shifted from teaching higher-level thinking to preparing students for standardized tests of all sorts. And the stakes are high; schools have suffered losses in funds, teachers, and enrollment because of students’ underperformance on tests. Indeed, in extreme cases, schools have been shut down because of poor test results.
Policy makers thought test taking would serve as an effective accountability measure and would make the United States more internationally competitive. However, policies intended to create incentives for better teaching and hard work have hurt students the most.
Teaching to the test overshadows (if not supplants) teaching critical thinking, higher-order reasoning, and the development of creative-writing skills. As Bernstein emphasizes, contemporary teaching or teaching to the test does not “require proper grammar, usage, syntax, and structure.” In fact, those skills may be perceived as unimportant in this modern age—as many of the tests taken by K-12 students employ multiple choice, and those that require essays grade on a rubric that pays little if any attention to the quality of writing.
Law schools are complicit, according to Washington University in St. Louis’s Brian Tamanaha, because they too play a numbers game. They also emphasize tests, such as the LSAT, which may not be the best indicator for student success but fits, as does GPA, into U.S. News & World Report’s rubric for law-school rankings.
In the quest to fill seats and boost tuition, law schools have also allowed grades to inflate. Two years ago, one law school increased all student grades retroactively by .333. The stakes boil down to student job placement.
Law schools essentially “buy” students who have the right GPA and LSAT scores, offering generous scholarships. Sometimes they engage in bidding wars over top students. They recruit more transfer students than ever before—students who can buy up into a higher-ranking school than the one they were able to enter as a first-year. On one hand, a student who works hard can attend the school of her or his dreams. Indeed, many of these students are smart, hard working, and eager to prove themselves. On the other hand, increased transfer classes are less about the students and more about recouping the losses from paying for so many scholarships—not to those in need, but to those who have great test scores.
In time, this bubble will burst. No Child Left Behind has left behind so many who are ill-prepared for jobs requiring nuanced thinking. What goes around in K through 12 comes around in postsecondary courses, and eventually in society at large.
Michele Goodwin is a professor of law at the University of Minnesota with joint appointments at the university’s medical and public-health schools.