Smart and lazy

U.S. high school students flub international exams and the National Assessment of Educational Progress because they’re lazy, not stupid, writes Alexandra Starr in Slate.

Nothing is at stake for kids when they take the international exams and the NAEP. Students don’t even learn how they scored. And that probably affects their performance. American teenagers, in other words, may not be stupid. It could be that when they have nothing to gain (or lose), they’re lazy.

Students improve dramatically when they know the exam counts.

Look at Texas: In 2004, results counted toward graduation for the first time, and pass rates on both the math and English portions of the test leapt almost 20 points. According to Julie Jary, who oversees student assessment for the state, no substantive alterations were made to the test. What changed was students’ motivation: When their diplomas were hanging in the balance, they managed to give more correct answers.

Starr argues other countries do more to motivate teenagers to do their best on international exams.

Update: Alexander Russo points out that students’ lack of motivation to do well on low-stakes exams is nothing new. But scores on other low-stakes tests are rising while high school scores are not.

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Comments

  1. Ms Starr makes some good points, but I wonder how familiar she is with the sorry state of math education in the U.S. Has she talked to math professors at the receiving end, who have to teach entering students calculus to find that they don’t need remedial algebra, but remedial middle school math? Regarding the NAEP, the 2004 exam had a question in which students were to find the length of a line segment above which was drawn a ruler. One end of the line segment was at 2 cm and the other end at 8.5 cm. Only 58% of 8th graders got it correct. It was multiple choice. I told this to a friend who said “I’m astonished that it was that high!” He told me about some teenagers he worked with in a habitat for humanity project in Appalachia who could barely use a ruler. They often took the length as the end mark on the ruler, without considering the beginning point. If they were lazy teenagers they were lazy in class as well as on the test. Or perhaps they were ill taught.

  2. F. N. Owl says:

    > when they have nothing to gain (or lose), they’re lazy.

    Or rational.

  3. I’m not saying that Ms. Starr’s article is dead on, but I do think that her points can explain why the U.S. is so far down the list. If the students do not believe that there is any benefit to them, when they have other homework that means something to their grade, and their college admissions tests and the like to worry about, one more standardized test where they don’t have anything on the line, I can’t see them putting everything they have into it. Whether that makes them lazy or rational, I won’t judge, but I think it explains something.

  4. Fourth graders don’t have entrance exams to worry about. Tom Loveless of Brookings Institution has done an analysis of NAEP test items, and found that the questions have become much easier over the years which may provide a reason why 4th grade scores on the NAEP math have actually skyrocketed over the years.

  5. This isn’t convincing at all. It’s true that U.S. students are not personally invested in the tests, but neither are students in dozens of other participating countries.

    Additionally, the rise in NAEP scores counts for something. Students are no more motivated to try hard on the test now than they were thirty years ago.

  6. My father was a substitute for a math class in high school for a very short while. He was so disgusted that he started making them learn their multiplication tables. I don’t know exactly who gave the order to him, whether it was a principal or fellow teachers, but he was told to STOP teaching them that and revert to the nothing that he had been.

  7. the students do not believe that there is any benefit to them, when they have other homework that means something to their grade,

    Which may or may not be busy-work to them.

    and their college admissions tests and the like to worry about, one more standardized test where they don’t have anything on the line, I can’t see them putting everything they have into it.

    There is also the age-old question of “teaching to the test”. There is also the unanswered problem of testing knowledge objectively and fairly. There is also the issue of students cramming just to pass, and then forgetting all the material.

    Whether that makes them lazy or rational, I won’t judge, but I think it explains something

    I think it also explains something about the pessimistic and nihilistic attitudes of modern youth. In some ways, it is rational.

    Why work your butt off in school (or even college and university) when you’ll probably be unemployed or underemployed anyway? Why get good grades when you can be one of the gang instead? Why bother with grades when the boss has plenty of relatives, quota minorities, cheap offshore workers, and “model” types that can’t do their jobs but make the company look good?