[VIEWPOINT]Research can set education free

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[VIEWPOINT]Research can set education free

On Oct. 13, the JoongAng Daily published an article (“Schools threaten to detail inflation”) that described the disregard certain universities have for high school grades. For admissions, the higher institutes of learning consider the grades to be inflated, and to judge student applicants, they instead employ high school rankings and, in some cases, conduct their own individual entrance examinations. The article was followed on Oct. 15 with examples of excessive numbers of high grade-point averages. Anyone following the debate has seen how fast the waters became muddied.
Engraved on the facade of the University of Texas at Austin are the words from a Bible verse, “You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free.” Education should be driven by the truth that emerges from sound research.
The current situation did not arise overnight. It has been developing for a long time, and nobody has seen fit to blow the whistle. Anecdotally, people have known right along what was happening, but nobody had any solid data. Research into high school grade-point averages would have alerted high school administrators and university admissions officers as to the direction of grades in time to do something. Now we have university admissions officers threatening high school students and high schools, while Education Ministry officials threaten to reprimand high school teachers. Blame is not the issue, it is not an answer to questions, and it certainly is not a solution to the problem.
When universities are confronted with a restriction of range, meaning that there is little or no difference among applicants, they have to find differences where they can. If the high school curriculum is so weak that great numbers of students are not challenged by it, then high schools have to do something to introduce more difficult material and greater rigor in grading, thus extending the range upward. When America was confronted with the problem 40 years ago, with agreement from colleges and universities and under sponsorship of the College Board, schools introduced an Advanced Placement (AP) Program. Top students take part in the AP program, with university-level content, and tests are developed, administered and scored by an outside body, under conditions in which grades are not susceptible to outside pressure.
While Korea’s university admissions officers make every effort to admit the best students they can in a fair competition, they do not necessarily have the tools they require. In addition to high school grade inflation, they are confronted with an inexpertly developed and poorly researched CSAT. The test development process, where untrained examiners are sequestered and told to develop a test in their content area on the model of past exams, can lead only to disaster.
Universities should not accept the CSAT at face value. The purpose of any university entrance examination is to predict success in a tertiary education setting. In brief, an entire test and each part of a test must be shown to correlate positively with first-year university performance. If the test fails to correlate with performance, then it is not doing what it promises. Indeed, if it fails in that regard, what purpose does it have?
As a predictor of performance at the university, does the CSAT provide better information than class rank or high school grades, or is some combination of the three best? What do the data tell us? Have studies been conducted to provide the data necessary for these analyses and, if so, are the results of these studies available to the public? If the CSAT is doing what it is supposed to do, and if its effectiveness as a predictor of success can be shown, there should be no need for locally developed admissions tests.
Of course, this line of thinking derives from confidence that university grades are less contrived than universities claim high school grades to be. Can universities demonstrate the validity of their grades, or is the public supposed to take them on faith? If university grades cannot be shown to be valid, then there is nothing against which to judge the value of the CSAT as an entrance measure.
The point is that disinterested research with published results is the key to a quality admissions program and accountability for all parties ― high schools, entrance examination officials and university admissions officers. Without it, an education system finds itself in the situation now confronting Korea.
In the United States, all of this activity ― the research, the establishment and development of advanced placement programs, or university testing ― is managed by a private agency, the College Board, which is a consortium of virtually all of the colleges and universities in the country. The government does not become involved. This is not because the U.S. government, or any government, is incapable of managing such a program, but rather to shield the work and the results from meddling on the part of officials and individuals.
Now that people are discussing these issues, it would seem that this is a good time to initiate serious research into what is transpiring in the nation’s educational system and publish the results for everyone to know what is happening.
As it says on the facade of the University of Texas, only the truth can make us free. I would add that only when the truth is known will the admissions debate be meaningful.

* Mr. Stupak has lived and worked in Korea for many years. At one time, as an employee of Educational Testing Service, he was responsible for the development of the Advanced Placement Examination in Spanish.

by Steven A. Stupak
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