2006 February 13 Monday
Walter Russell Mead For Standard National Tests

Writing for the Weekly Standard Walter Russell Mead makes an argument familiar to long time ParaPundit readers: People should be able to earn credit toward college degrees by taking standard tests to demonstrate mastery of many different subject areas.

There is no reason the government should try to prevent American families who value the traditional college experience from paying hundreds of thousands of dollars, but perhaps it could offer an alternative: a federally recognized national baccalaureate (or 'national bac') degree that students could earn by demonstrating competence and knowledge.

My first problem with this proposal is that I do not see why the federal government should get involved.

With input from employers, the Department of Education could develop standards in fields like English, the sciences, information technology, mathematics, and so on. Students would get certificates when they passed an exam in a given subject. These certificates could be used, like the Advanced Placement tests of the College Board, to reduce the number of courses students would need to graduate from a traditional college. And colleges that accepted federal funds could be required to award credits for them.

The US Department of Education should not set such standards. Professional societies are the most logical candidates for setting standards in scientific and technical areas. For example, the American Chemical Society used to (and perhaps still does) produce a standard test of what students should learn in first year college chemistry. Professional societies in engineering, math, physics, geology, and other fields could produce similar tests.

But the certificates would be good for something else as well. With enough certificates in the right subjects, students could get a national bac without going to college. Government agencies would accept the bac as the equivalent of a conventional bachelor's degree; graduate schools and any organization receiving federal funds would also be required to accept it.

Standardized tests would provide better measures of knowledge and skills acquired. Also, tests for levels of knowledge at finer levels of granularity than an entire bachelors degree in a subject would allow demonstration that a person has acquired any number of combinations of skills which might be needed in different jobs.

Subject exams calibrated to a national standard would give employers something they do not now have: assurance that a student has achieved a certain level of knowledge and skill. It is the easiest thing in the world today to find English majors with BA degrees from accredited colleges who cannot write a standard business letter. If national bac holders could in fact perform this and other specific tasks that employers want their new hires to perform, it is likely that increasing numbers of employers would demand the bac in addition to a college degree. Students who attended traditional colleges would increasingly need to pass these exams to obtain the full benefits of their degree.

For students from modest or low-income homes, as well as for part-time students trying to earn degrees while they work full time jobs or raise families, the standards would offer a cheaper, more efficient way to focus their education. Students could take prep courses that focused on the skills they actually needed to do the jobs they sought. Parents could teach their kids at home. Schools and institutes could offer focused programs. Public records could show how well students performed on the exams, offering students and parents far more accountability and information than they now get.

Standardized tests would also allow people to pursue education at an accelerated pace. Combine standardized tests with video recordings of lectures and people could take classes any day of the week or time of the day. One could sit down and in a week of long hours watch the entire lecture series for a whole year college course.

Such programs would be both cheaper and more flexible than conventional college degree programs. The contemporary American college is solidly grounded in the tradition of the medieval guilds. These guilds deliberately limited competition to keep fees high. In the best of cases, guild regulation also protected consumers by imposing quality and fairness standards on guild members. Few observers of American education today would argue with straight faces that the quality of undergraduate education is a major concern of contemporary guilds like the American Association of University Professors. Colleges today provide no real accounting to students, parents, or anybody else about the quality of the education they provide. No other market forces consumers to make choices on so little information.

Rather than the US Congress stepping in I see this as an initiative that state governments could pursue. Individual states and groups of states could approach national professional societies of science, math, and engineering and ask for standard tests for all courses leading toward degrees. In topic areas which are less objective groups of state university systems operating under the instruction of bills passed by state legislatures could make up their own common standards.

However, Mead gets it right in arguing that the current system is akin to a guild system that is obsolete and holding back automation and innovation in education.

By setting open standards for the national bac, and by allowing anybody to offer the service of preparing students to take the exams, Congress could break the guilds' monopoly on education. A century ago higher education was still a luxury, and it scarcely mattered that it was offered only by arcane guilds in a system that took shape in the Middle Ages. But today many people of very modest means need a BA-equivalent degree to succeed in the workplace.

The power of the guilds in the goods-producing industries had to be broken before the factory system could provide the cheaper goods of the industrial revolution. The service and information revolutions require the breakup of the knowledge guilds: The professoriat is a good place to start.

College education is an excessive burden in terms of the money and the time required, in terms of the need to go to a college to get educated, and in terms of the hours for classes. For example, lots of students find it hard to work a job while in school because courses end up getting scattered across all 5 days of the week and scattered out across each day. Courses start at a few fixed times per year and run at only a single pace. Colleges are highly inconvenient and costly for students.

Children could start building up college level credit at much younger ages and earn degrees more cheaply and rapidly if standardized tests were available for a larger range of subjects. State universities or even private colleges could grant degrees. Even without a degree from an existing university one could get a certificate from a professional society stating that you have learned, say, enough chemistry to equal or even exceed the typical amount of knowledge learned by those who get a bachelor's degree in chemistry.

The College Board already offers advanced placement tests. Either that organization or colleges could administer a more extensive set of standard tests. Absolute national uniformity would not be necessary. After all, every college now has its own tests that vary from class to class from one year to the next. Groups of colleges could offer different sets of standard tests.

Since state governments operate a large number of universities and colleges (probably numbering into the thousands) the states seem the logical agents for carrying out a move toward standard tests and video recording of class lectures. Taxpayers money is already paying for substantial portions of salaries of academics. Some of that money could be directed more usefully toward developing tests, recorded lectures, and places where tests held for a large range of subjects at once.

Share |      By Randall Parker at 2006 February 13 10:08 PM  Education

Bob Badour said at February 14, 2006 8:41 AM:

How to handle labs? 30% to 40% of my college instruction time was spent at one lab bench or another.

Stephen said at February 14, 2006 5:52 PM:

Children could start building up college level credit at much younger ages...

I see a number of problems with this otherwise sensible proposal. First, by the time the child gets to college, they've forgotten what they learnt 5yrs ago; Second, the knowledge is out of date anyway; Third, the curriculum might change so that particular bit of knowledge isn't used.

In a more macro sense, the problem with standardised testing is worse. First, it's open to rorting as people learn to play the system; and, second, it makes changing the tests a years long bureaucratic nightmare and thereby ensures that our education system is teaching only knowledge that was both common ground and non-contraversial fifteen years earlier.

Randall Parker said at February 14, 2006 6:06 PM:


First off, the reason to keep the test standards spread out is in part to avoid the bureaucracy and in part to allow competing standards. Take the MIT standard tests for a computer science degree. Or take the Land Grant College Coalition tests for a computer science degree. Or take a couple of test suites and prove your knowledge a couple of ways.

Forgotten knowledge: Depends on how the degree system works. Suppose the Northwestern State University Test Board requires you to pass all the tests in a subject in some time frame like, say, 12 months. You could take various tests over a period of years to prove to yourself you've mastered the material. Then you could try retaking all those tests in some window of time and retake any ones you failed. The repetition would burn in the knowledge much better.

Also, a person would be able to take a lot of tests expecting to fail most of them and then to periodically take the suite over again to test their knowledge. The length of tests for, say, a physics degree shouldn't require a whole week to take. A day or two would suffice.

Stephen said at February 14, 2006 6:10 PM:

That said, I agree that the education system is incredibly inefficient (one of the reasons why adding another layer of bureaucracy in hte form of standardised testing is only going to make matters worse).

I like the Open University system in the UK where lectures are broadcast on TV during the early hours, recorded by the student and then played back at their leasure (and presumably kept for later review). Presumably they now stream lectures via the web. Quality doesn't seem to drop as the OU consistently ranks near the top of UK unis, and even beats Oxford on occasion (but of course never ever Cambridge!!!). Also they don't limit themselves to BA's, you can even do hard science degrees.

Bob's question about lab work is spot on. I suppose that ultimately the student does need to attend a specialised facility.

I do worry about non-campus learning though (*warning, elitist comment ahead*). The university environment gives students an opportunity to come into contact with lots of different opinions and disciplines, and encourages people to question the way the world works and pick up the vibe of university life. Sure, all that most pick up is an arts student and crabs, but at least they had the chance to broaden their mind.

Stephen said at February 14, 2006 6:56 PM:

Randall, perhaps I'm misunderstanding you. Are you saying that there wouldn't be a single standard, rather each discipline would have several competing standards and that each standard would be developed separately?

In any event, on reflection I'm wondering whether standardised tests add anything that couldn't be done now in a less formal way? For instance, at the moment I can negotiate with the head of faculty (delegated down to the course coordinator) for credit on any study unit. I can do this by producing evidence of previous study of the unit or of real experience. A case I recall is of a marine biologist who got 95% of her degree credited automatically based on life experience - she'd been an active hobbyist for 20yrs and had actually made several discoveries and in the process had several papers published by a number of peer reviewed journals. One day she walked into a University with evidence of her hobby, received credit for most study units and walked out 3-months later with a degree.

By way of extension, I can see some faculties agreeing to credit a person who claims knowledge (but can't easily prove it), if the person first takes the test for the unit and receives a good pass. Another way of leveraging credit might be to enter an arrangement with the faculty where the student does the course work in one batch - ie if a unit requires four 2500 word papers on various topics over a semester, the student is given the questions and comes back four weeks later with the completed papers ready for marking. This way the student avoids the real inconvenience of having to attend classes spread out over a semester, and instead walks away with credit in a month. At that rate, the student could have a degree inside a year without the need to attend campus and without the need for any standardised testing.

Randall Parker said at February 14, 2006 7:16 PM:


You understand me correctly. We already have thousands of competing standards since we have thousands of universities and colleges which each set their own standards for their own students. The problem with the current system is that each of those schools requires you to sit in their classes for years. Having a half dozen or two dozen competing standards for each degree type does not strike me as a problem. The standard source would be readily identifiable such as, say, "Plains States Land Grant College Coalition" or "University of California" or "American Physical Society" or "National Academy Of Sciences Physicists".

The granting of credit based on knowledge is a rare occurrence. There's no system for it. Few can qualify.

As for lab work: One could learn all the theory and pass all the tests. Then one could enroll to take only lab courses in those majors that require them.

AMac said at February 14, 2006 8:23 PM:

In the discussion, you've given chemistry as a favored example of subject matter. One potential problem with Mead's idea is that many liberal-arts college majors would translate into tests that would be very difficult to score fairly. Whose interpretation of Sartre, or Foucault, or Derrida, or for that matter Shakespeare is insightful, and whose is banal?

A similar issue is that many of the 'bacs' in a good number of popular subjects would have little self-evident value to many third parties (e.g. potential employers).

Randall Parker said at February 14, 2006 8:41 PM:


Yes, some subjects are highly subjective. However, this is one of the reasons I advocate competing standards.

Think about it. Some English test for an English bac could be centered around knowledge of classics and perhaps the size of one's vocabulary. Another oculd be based on deconstruction. The certificate agency could publish for employers and would-be test takers what the test is about.

Chem Prof said at February 14, 2006 9:22 PM:

The American Chemical Society offers standardized exams from the freshman through the graduate level. I use them as finals in all in classes I teach.

John S Bolton said at February 14, 2006 10:09 PM:

We also have the GRE subject exams, which are taken to get into the more selective graduate schools.
Employers can't use such test results to verify that college material has been mastered within a major.
They can't because the races and major ethnic groups differ in enormous degree, when tested this way.
The government says that time in school must yield equal results between the groups, or the test, or calculus, or anything objectively tested, is racist.
This gives the professoriate a guild interest in the affirmative action, racial quota regime, over and above their will to power.
Now we send over half each cohort to college, and an even higher female percentage, just to beat the quota system in a way that serves the guild interests of the professoriate, or bribes them, if you like.
This result is major aggression on the net taxpayer; it is dysgenic, and might even be called autogenocidal.
They may sometimes broaden their minds, but almost always narrow their life functions overall.

John S Bolton said at February 14, 2006 10:47 PM:

This is a good chance to repeat a suggestion of mine that splashy cash prizes be awarded for the highest scores on GRE subject tests taken by self-taught (at the college level) high school students. They should be double-tested, in perfectly proctored places, for the bigger prizes, say tens of thousands for the top hundreds of scorers, in as many subjects as could be sponsored. Geology and chemistry have obvious corporate sponsors, if they are not all cowering before the advocates of racial quotas, to the extent of quaking in panic at the thought of merit competitions. Right now, HS students have no great incentive to move far ahead in one field.
At the same time, they need to distinguish themselves in some way. 10 subjects X 300 1st prizewinners X $20,000, + 10 x 3000 2nd prizewinners X $2,000 = $120 million. Take this out of the minority racial scholarship money, or twice that amount, and return half to the taxpayer. Alternatively, remove 600 minority quota cases from the service academies, as if we cared about national security enough not to use them for racial politics of the Sharpton level, and you pay for one subject.
Or, reduce immigration by the percent of the bottom of abilities in English language proficiency, necessary to save $200 million in public school expenditures on their children, that was net public subsidy to the avoided prospective immigrants, and refund the remainder to the net taxpayer. We need loyalty to the advancement of civilization, and this comes from the upper levels of ability, found with abundance of independent-mindedness even early on; not equality of results between races.

John S Bolton said at February 14, 2006 11:18 PM:

In order to avoid excessive throwing of money at rich families of doubtful loyalty, restrict eligibility to the children of those with military service records, including state militia. That would allow for the total sum awarded each year for such prizes to be reduced by a factor of ten, to $12 million. There could be dozens of first prizes and hundrds of second prizes in each subject. Take twice that sum out of federal aid for handicapped mainstreaming, and leave the other half for the net taxpayer. Or, take four times that amount from the foreign scholarship money, and return 3/4ths of it to the taxpayer.

John S Bolton said at February 15, 2006 2:42 AM:

Another source of possible funding; the $50 million in military aid that the hostile country to the south is getting this year.

crush41 said at February 18, 2006 10:07 PM:

"...encourages people to question the way the world works and pick up the vibe of university life. Sure, all that most pick up is an arts student and crabs, but at least they had the chance to broaden their mind."

I'm more taciturn at school than anywhere else because the intellectual environment is so hostile--discussing Griggs v Duke in HR as candidly as I could has probably cost my social networking in a significant way. Work in a pc corporation is more conducive to critical thinking than university life. Regarding vibe, it's self-immolation, descent to the clique's lowest common denominator of slovenly behavior, and an obsession with homosexuality (sidewalk chalk, loud 'rallies' on the main campus drag, bumper stickers on backpacks).

Randall's been behind this idea for a long time. It will save money, check ideological nonsense, and will give bright hs students more much sooner than they can get it in the traditional structure. Students taking on material at the same time could discuss material via online discussion forums so ideas/opinions can be defended on equal footing and w/o all that stigma stuff that comes with the classroom setting.

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