University a degree factory

Earlier this year, one of my professors ran the class through an exercise to gauge opinion on the quality of post-secondary education. Responses ran the gamut from views that universities were simply “degree factories” to depictions of graduation as the time when students receive “pieces of paper.”

To be sure, I knew that there was a fair amount of cynicism about how classes were conducted on a university level, but I did not think it ran that deep. What leads to that perception? Does it speak to a greater issue in Ontario education in general?

To a degree, the assessment process of regurgitating class material via Scantron or some other sort of standard examination tool, is a staple throughout the Ontario curriculum. Students in grade three, six, nine and ten all deal with a government-issued standardized test to “increase accountability and enhance quality within Ontario’s education system.” The grade ten literacy test is a requirement to receive the high school diploma in Ontario and the grade nine math summative is directly factored into the student’s overall grade.

What is truly standardized about these tests? In each year, teachers are dealing with different students in different circumstances. The questions on one test one year are completely different from the questions on the test the next year.

How reliable, then, are the EQAO (Education Quality and Accountability Office) tests in assessing student performance in Ontario schools? I would argue, that at the very most, the standardized tests are an indication of how that group of students — at an aggregate level (i.e. all of Ontario) — has an ability to take a test, not understand concepts. I would propose that the desire of the Ontario government and district school boards to regard the tests as either an improvement or deterioration of student performance seeks to find patterns where few exist.

Beyond aggregate data, standardized tests have little to tell us about individual areas. To propose that these results have any more to say about teaching abilities in a certain board, or even a certain school, is to find excuses for the lack of student performance in some areas.

Given the sentiments of university students — people who have obviously achieved a certain level of academic performance in their elementary and secondary educations— I think that we can presume that there is something much deeper going on here than students’ abilities to fill in the correct bubbles on a card.

I offer this sidetrack as an analogy for the feeling of inefficacy among university students: students who have had the privilege of having some undoubtedly talented teachers along their journey, but have been plagued by the standardization of education for their entire school careers.

Sir Ken Robinson, a British author and international education advisor, has spoken extensively on what he calls the need for a “revolution in education.” He has theorized that there is a hierarchy of education where math and English are at the top, the humanities settle in the middle and the arts fall to the bottom. In doing so, he says, the purpose of the public education system is to not to enhance creativity and promote learning, but to produce university professors (ironic since Robinson was a professor for many years).

He further argues that the entire goal of the education process is to facilitate the end goal of being accepted into university. He calls this the fast-food model of education, which he says must change. Schools must not provide a mechanical — read, standardized — education system, but one where students find the conditions under which to grow.

To link this all together, I think part of the reason that some university students become disappointed with the system is because the system has been the same for their entire academic careers and they are realizing they are sick of it.
Robinson is right. Little changes to the education system won’t cut it. We need big, unconventional ideas.

It’s time to move past the standardized tests in elementary and secondary schools. We don’t need to segment students and presuppose academic (and life) success by the scores that a seven year old gets on a multiple choice test. We need to create an environment where students feel like they aren’t just being taught. They need to feel like they are actually learning. And maybe if we do that, universities will start to feel less like degree factories and more like theatres for growth and learning.