Sooner or Later, Ability Rules

on a long enough timescale, there's nowhere to hide

There’s a fact that you hear a lot about in behind-the-scenes higher education chats that seems not to have penetrated with the public: remediation has gotten harder and more expensive, and over time the problem grows and grows.

Why have remediation costs exploded? Look at the graph above. There is no underlying trend in educational data that would suggest that this vast improvement is underwritten by actual student learning gains. We decided the high school graduation rate was a national scandal, we found that we could not actually bring students up to standards, so we cheated and graduated them anyway. Can’t actually meet standards? Hey, there’s “online credit recovery.” Need a model high school without model students? Here’s one where everybody gets As, regardless of ability. Can’t get students through even with all of these lowered standards and with all of these dirty tricks? Don’t have any standards at all.

When I worked at Brooklyn College there was this constant vexing problem across the CUNY system. Students who do two years at a CUNY community college are guaranteed admissions at a 4-year school, but these students often show up with their transcripts an absolute mess and completely lacking the necessary underlying ability to succeed. Their struggles gets foisted onto already-overworked senior college professors, and of course the community college professors who send them to the senior colleges blame the high schools. All of this contributes to a system where six out of ten undergraduates can’t pass their required math classes. Why can’t these college students do high school math? Well, when the cut score for your state standardized exam is so ludicrously low, what do you expect? Something like this is happening all over the country: unprepared students get into college under misguided access programs or simply through the financial desperation of the schools. Once their lack of ability is apparent, the choices are to either let them drop out and start their lives with student loan debt and no degree, or to simply abandon the idea of rigor and further devalue the meaning of a college education.

Why does that transfer policy persist at CUNY? One, the senior colleges need the enrollments to stay in business, and two, because leadership views it as an equity program and conditions that supposedly increase equity simply cannot be challenged within CUNY. It’s broken, everyone knows it’s broken, nothing changes.

Many people seem content to kick the can further down the road. Even a half-decade ago when I was in grad school there was a burgeoning movement to reject the notions of grading and assessment entirely. (They’re as old as education, but ah well.) Several of my peers said directly that they never gave bad grades, even to people who didn’t once show up or submit an assignment, because grades are the hand of the patriarchy or whatever. You can call that a fringe position, but of course grade inflation has been rampant in college for decades; students are consumers now and eventually consumers get what they want. Now, with a social justice pretext presenting itself, I think eventually most colleges are going to take the path of least resistance and just give almost everybody As and call it a day. Fewer dropouts = more tuition dollars, after all. At scale, we’re already seeing an admissions free-for-all at all but top-tier US colleges. Policy pressure in K-12 has been pushing more unqualified students into the college pipeline from below for decades; the colleges pluck more and more of them up from above to stay fiscally solvent. But the best-prepared students were already going, and now there’s no more low-hanging fruit, and the kids they’re recruiting simply are not prepared and don’t belong in college. So they’ll just abandon rigor.

The problem is, you can only fulfil that bipartisan dream of armies of poor Black kids climbing out of the inner cities to Stanford and on to Google and upper-middle class lives if those kids can actually get the job done, if they can actually engineer, if they can actually code. Many of the students we graduate from high school simply cannot do what’s necessary to have that kind of success. Who is going to show up at Google and tell them that they have to give a programming job to someone who can’t code, because their lack of skills is just another equally legitimate “way of knowing”?

In less than 10 years, the United States has ping ponged from an expensive and futile standardize-and-test regime that strained teachers and stressed kids to a still-developing but empowered movement to abandon the very concepts of standards and assessment. We terrorized children with ceaseless testing, paid Pearson billions of dollars, and subjected teachers to pressures that inevitably left them teaching to the test. The eminently predictable backlash to that disaster, along with a moral panic about race that seeks to cut every corner and avoid all hard work, now has us sprinting so hard in the other direction that my head is spinning. And what we’re left with is the basic failure of both of them: to understand that we cannot achieve equality in schooling because human beings are not equal in their abilities, including academic abilities, and that the only humane path is not to force everyone to be smart, or to stop using tests and assessments to identify who’s smart, but to build a world that respects, nurtures, and protects those who aren’t.