Educational Testing versus Educational Scamming — A Thorstein Veblen Perspective

Oct 23, 2011 by

By Robert Oliphant –

With mainstream sources like the LA Times (7/24/2011) on their side, Americans can now feel comfortable in recognizing the runaway extravagance of their universities, e.g., the fact that university tuition and fees have risen “five times as fast as inflation during the last 30 years” (Economist, July 9th). By way of answering “how come” let’s take a quick look at Thorstein Veblen’s principle of “conspicuous waste.”

Robert Oliphant earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962).

As most business majors will recall, Veblen introduced vanity into economics by reminding Americans that status was a key element in their purchasing decisions. Even today many of us still accept his views regarding the psychological value of owning objects or receiving services that are highly visible and expensively wasteful (e.g., diamond rings, Lamborghinis, high priced college degrees, etc.).

PARENTAL STATUS SEEKERS. . . . Recognizing this irrational feature in American education, LA Times columnist Sandy Banks recently pointed out (7/24/2011) how cheerfully American parents continue to pay grotesquely overpriced tuition and fees without complaint.

Consider, for example, the yearly tab at the University of California at Los Angeles according to their Student Affairs department: $12,680 for tuition plus $19,064 in fees for students living on campus. As might be expected, only 36% of UCLA’s entering freshmen (4,500 in 2006) actually graduate in the traditional four years (NCES statistics). Yet how many parents actually complain about their Cadillac-level educational expenditures?

By way of another anomaly, given the above figures, how did UCLA manage to award 7,500 bachelor’s degrees in 2010? (NCES figures). The answer is that at least half of these degrees went to working-class transfers from low-tuition two-year community colleges. But this in turn raises a second question: How on earth do CC students whom UCLA would not accept as freshmen manage to outperform UCLA “natives” on the junior and senior level?

The answer can be summed up in one phrase: Worker Bees. Simply put, California community colleges, though dirt cheap, have a longer semester with more class meetings and mandatory attendance, along with hard working full time teachers who teach 5 courses per semester and trim the size of their classes by handing out plenty of Ds and Fs. Hence CC transfers, though admittedly less talented, are usually solid workers who compete very effectively in junior-senior courses — enough so to graduate in droves.

High-priced 4-year tuition and fees for status-conscious parents balanced by open-transfer opportunities for worker-bees at low priced two-year community college students — the combination speaks well for America’s ability to juggle its moral and educational complexities, along with validating the old American adage that “persistence trumps brains seven days out of the week.”

Educational fun and games for the rich, competitive educational opportunities for the poor — up until recently this combination was accepted by America’s leaders as the best of all baccalaureate worlds and an open invitation to professional educators to spend and spend, rip off and rip off, with no fear of paternal, student, or taxpayers. Today, though, the international spread of Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English (SWADE) urges us to “de-Veblenize” American higher education in favor of threes new policies that will strengthen our national intellectual competitiveness, not weaken it.

Our first step should be to eliminate all federal and state support for freshman/ sophomore courses in tax supported four-year universities.

EXTERNAL TESTING AND SWADE. . . . The key feature of this educational juggling work can be summed up in the phrase, external testing. Nursery schools today test their candidates, not just their students. And so it goes up the line: classroom tests for letter grades supplemented by more general tests to validate classroom teaching, coupled with still others to predict a candidate’s future classroom performance — small wonder our children grow up to play three or more slot machines at Las Vegas with verve and brio.

The one feature threading through this metrological maze is can be summed up as Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English (SWADE). Right now it’s SWADE which is now used and tested internationally: from Chicago and L.A. to Shanghai, Calcutta, China, India, Iran, Cape Town, and Buenos Aires (cf. offshore tele-salesmanship skills).

This celebration of SWADE should not be taken as belittling the external testing of physical science and mathematics in winnowing candidates for college and graduate school via the Graduate Record exam (GRE) and other measures. But the sheer size of our American English vocabulary compels us to measure its fluency at many age-levels and in many testing formats, including the much maligned New York Times daily crossword puzzle as now prescribed for Alzheimer’s worriers.

RED QUEEN LEARNING. . . .Since these multi-level external tests operate independently, they require vigorous independent study by students, not chit-chat classroom activities, e.g., a worker bee PhD candidate who prepares for an oral exam by spending a solid year in independent reading. Historically, the American correspondence course employed this personal-growth approach, and it still survives in our state bar exams as a model framework for what might be called a low cost “Red Queen system” — “Test first, then the studying.”

As currently in use, our de facto Red Queen systems simply start with existing tests, e.g., the “Test of English as a Foreign Language” (TOEFL). They then locates study materials that will help the student do better on this particular external test than other, more expensive study materials — very much like a theatrical agent locating a suitable role for a client, or a trainer prepping an Iron Man triathlon.

WHAT LIES AHEAD. . . . From an action-reaction perspective, it’s clear that our greedy four-year colleges have lost their intellectual and moral authority, enough so to encourage the development of what we might call “competence delivery systems.” The Economist, for instance, recently noted India’s development of its “American Achievement Competence Test” (AMACT) to compete worldwide against our own Graduate Record Exam.

By way of speculation: Given the competitive growth of external testing and personal-growth study, it seems likely that many traditional 4-year colleges will soon reemphasize their traditional role as marriage markets for the upper middle class (c.f. the famous “Stanford Ratio” of 2.54 young men to each young woman back in the 60s).

Beyond that, the growing international expansion of Spoken Worldwide American Dictionary English strongly indicates that the traditional American partnership between external testing and personal-growth deserves to be taken seriously by all of us, especially parents. “An apple for the teacher but new words for the kids” — what’s wrong with this as a motto for worried grownups?

ABOUT THE AUTHOR. . . . Robert Oliphant earned a PhD in English Philology at Stanford (1962). His best known book is the anti-Alzheimer’s “A Piano for Mrs. Cimino” (1980), the film version of which won a Monte Carlo award for Bette Davis. A U.S. Army veteran (air corps), he now writes a column for

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