Arnold Kling  

A Means A

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A few months ago, Ben Casnocha wrote,


Maybe 5-10% of high school high achievers should pursue higher education without attending a four year traditional college. This is the "Real Life University" option for entrepreneurial spirits. This is for folks who can learn a lot on their own, can assemble mentors and advisors to guide the process, and most of all find their creativity smothered by drudgery of school -- or otherwise are on a trajectory higher than what college can offer -- and therefore need an alternative path.

His estimate of the percentage may be high, particularly in the near term. But that is the group that I wanted to aim at in my post on schools without classrooms.

Anyway, one important issue with alternative education models is interfacing with the legacy credential system. If you take a course from an alternative college, how can you get the credits to transfer to a traditional college or translate into a credible degree?

One solution might be an independent assessment center that is sort of a cross between the Advanced Placement testing system and Swarthmore College's outside examiners. Like the AP tests, it would use a rigorous grading system that people could trust. Like the Swarthmore system, the examiners would show some flexibility in adapting to any course syllabus, so that the syllabus and the curriculum would come from the bottom up (teachers and students) rather than from the top down (the rigid curriculum of the AP folks).*

(*What if a teacher of, say, organic chemistry, offers a dumbed-down course that omits a number of difficult topics? The folks at A Means A would write an exam and give a grade based on the curriculum, but they would also report that the curriculum failed to cover topics that ordinarily are covered in organic chemistry.)

I think of naming this entity "A Means A," to convey the notion that the standards for getting an A, B, C, etc. from this testing entity would be very clear. You do not have to ask how to translate a grade from a community college course into a grade at a top-tier university. You would not have to wonder about the propensity of some professor to be an easy grader or about overall grade inflation at an institution. Instead, this new entity would guarantee that A means A.

What would be the market for A Means A? I think that it would help community colleges and regular four-year colleges inter-operate more cleanly. In the for-profit college sector, A Means A could serve to separate the legitimate from the illegitimate. And for educational innovators in general, it could provide a means to obtain credibility for new methods of learning. Eventually, A Means A could enhance the effort and rigor of the legacy college system by separating the assessment process from the content-delivery process.


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COMMENTS (9 to date)
Jack writes:

Would the GRE/GMAT/MCAT be a good model? It might be useful to consider them as baselines against which to develop a system such as your A Means A, and how to improve upon them.

Damien writes:

If there can be different curricula, would we not still have to "ask how to translate a grade from a community college course into a grade at a top-tier university"? You would know for instance that the student knew and could apply 90% of the material that was covered, but you'd still have to look at what was covered. Which means that A would not be A since there could still be two students with the same *grade* but two widely different levels of mastery and/or ability.

JKB writes:

It would certainly go a long way to protecting students who end up damaged by malfeasance such as the Atlanta School system scandal. The students could test out to prove where they really stand. Probably would also be useful as a testing service since now the incentives are for schools and systems to cheat when they control the testing.

But as you state, it is a way to handle the credentialism that forces students already ahead of the curve to attend colleges for the piece of paper.

I believe this view of an undergraduate education from 1923 is correct:

The idea is, of course, that men are successful because they have gone to college. No idea was ever more absurd. No man is successful because he has managed to pass a certain number of courses and has received a sheepskin which tells the world in Latin, that neither the world nor the graduate can read, that he has successfully completed the work required. If the man is successful, it is because he has the qualities for success in him; the college "education" has merely, speaking in terms' of horticulture, forced those qualities and given him certain intellectual tools with which to work-tools which he could have got without going to college, but not nearly so quickly. So far as anything practical is concerned, a college is simply an intellectual hothouse. For four years the mind of the undergraduate is put "under glass," and a very warm and constant sunshine is poured down upon it. The result is, of course, that his mind blooms earlier than it would in the much cooler intellectual atmosphere of the business world.

A man learns more about business in the first six months after his graduation than he does in his whole four years of college. But-and here is the "practical" result of his college work-he learns far more in those six months than if he had not gone to college. He has been trained to learn, and that, to all intents and purposes, is all the training he has received. To say that he has been trained to think is to say essentially that he has been trained to learn, but remember that it is impossible to teach a man to think. The power to think must be inherently his. All that the teacher can do is help him learn to order his thoughts-such as they are.

Marks, Percy, "Under Glass", Scribner's Magazine Vol 73, 1923, p 47

With the "schools without classrooms" idea and other methods, it is possible to create the hothouse for students outside the campus. This "A means A" idea would solve the problem of documenting that education in a form that ticks the box on the HR managers spreadsheet.

Perry writes:

I support only part of this. I think it makes sense to have outside examiners, but transaction costs would make customized exams too expensive, and it would be too hard for people to compare what very different exams meant anyway. In comparing large pools of candidates, one wants to see standardized results, not the results from hundreds of different exams tailored to hundreds of different individualized curricula.

Perhaps a simpler move would be to have smaller exams that could be mixed -- exams that tested sufficiently granular chunks of a particular curriculum that students could successfully pick subsets to conform more accurately to what they had learned.

That said, having standardized exams across universities would absolutely make it much easier for alternative institutions to compete, since an A from one would be the same as an A from any other.

I'm also unsure, btw, that having a "rigid" curriculum that you're expected to learn similar to the form of what AP or GRE committees set now is such a bad thing. People need some sort of baseline on which to figure out what they probably want to learn, and it is easier and cheaper not to have to reinvent that over and over and over again. Such committees develop minimum curricula anyway -- nothing stops good students from learning far more, and indeed, any decent student will...

Jeremy, Alabama writes:

Parts of this idea have been around a long time. "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance", I believe, recommends young people go out into the world, find their calling, then return to the "Church of Reason" with a fire in their belly.

roystgnr writes:

What happens when A means A, but B means Lawsuit? Colleges can produce horribly racially skewed graduation rates and consequent employment rates after all their tests and grading are done, but they manage to stay immune to the racially disparate impact lawsuits that prevent employers from directly testing applicants. Wanting your employees have a high IQ is forbidden because that's not "reasonably related" to job performance and it seems to discriminate by race. So employers demand a four-year degree, with a B.S. in Underwater Basketweaving accepted, because that acts as a legally acceptable proxy for IQ despite being even less related to job performance and more discriminatory by race and socioeconomic status.

Even for colleges which do worry about racial balance, they can also get away with Affirmative Action policies while remaining slightly less vulnerable than employers to racial discrimination lawsuits.

If these immunities are due to some unarticulated but consistent principle, what is that principle, and how do you ensure that "A means A" is similarly safe? If the universities are just getting some kind of cultural "grandfather clause" then you're out of luck regardless.


Legalities out of the way, this could be a very good idea or a very bad one, mostly depending on how resilient the test design is against the effects of Goodhart's Law. It's easy to come up with tests that correlate well with student performance despite not actually measuring student performance, and then the correlation breaks down just as soon as you actually try to use the test results, because studying for the test becomes more important than studying for the subject. It's much harder (though not impossible - PE and bar exams seem robust) to create tests that are comprehensive enough to actually be direct measurements of ability.

Noah Yetter writes:

The problem is that real knowledge can't be tested for in the traditional manner. At all.

When I took my Databases course in college, I had no problem answering questions on what differentiates the 3rd Normal Form from the 2nd, what a Candidate Key is, blah blah blah. Today I couldn't tell you any of that stuff. Yet I am 100 times more skilled with the Relational Model than I was at that time, and I have leveraged those skills Getting Stuff Done.

Put an eager student into an actual development operation for the 12 or 16 weeks that a course would run, and they will learn much, much more on a more useful cross-section of topics. But that will not enable them to ace a test that the traditional student would waltz right through.

I believe there is an impedance mismatch between Traditional Education on the one hand and Actually Learning Useful Things on the other that cannot be reconciled.

Karen writes:

I find that 'A Means A' is an interesting idea that could potentially increase the efficiency for employers to select from the graduate pool and possibly lower the costs that are generated in translating different versions of grades. However, we must consider the cost of going through each and every professor's syllabus and creating a standardized test for his/her curriculum. The traffic of entering and exiting of professors is sure to be high and hence, it can be rather expensive to create an "A means A" for each professor and each institution.
I believe there is a solution out there that will maximize efficiency for the messy inter-college standardized testing scenario but I'm not sure if 'A means A' is it.

jb writes:

I like the theory.

I would say that just because I can be tested to prove I know X, Y and Z doesn't necessarily mean much, if X, Y and Z are not particularly important.

In other words, if I go to College 1, and provably learn X, Y and Z, and then try to transfer to College 2, which only cares that I know Y, Z and A, I'm modestly hosed. And perhaps that's ok - maybe that's part of the due diligence of the student to decide how much they should learn.


I'm not so worried about transaction costs. Unless the class size is exceptionally small, the costs of creating a scorable test should be fairly easy to acquire from the per-student classroom fees.

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