The Futility of Government Education Standards

Parents want to know how well prepared their children are academically. Employers want to know what job applicants know. Educational standards and testing are thus useful tools. Leaping from that fact to the belief that state or federal government should impose a single set of standards or tests on all students is utterly unjustified.

When the government imposes, for instance, a high-school leaving test that students must pass in order to graduate, one of two things happens: the test is watered down to the point of meaninglessness to ensure that virtually every student receives a diploma, or the test is deferred or eliminated to ensure that every student receives a diploma.

The latter course was adopted by Washington state several months ago, and by Texas two days ago. Once a government gets into the business of handing out diplomas, it is compelled by political expediency to ensure that virtually all students are awarded diplomas. You can’t get re-elected if voters think that you’ve ruined their children’s career prospects by denying them a government diploma.

Most people want to know how well students are actually performing, especially at the end of high school, but government diplomas cannot tell us that because they must be easy enough for virtually everyone to obtain.

There is an obvious solution to this dilemma: get the government out of the diploma business. While it is important for diplomas to be meaningful, to connote some specific set of skills and body of knowledge, it is not necessary for every student to earn precisely the same diploma, or for diplomas to be awarded by the government. The private sector handles knowledge certification all the time. In the computer industry, for instance, database and networking companies certify workers as competent to use their products. These certifications are meaningful, but different from one another.

Diplomas that connote more advanced skills in a wider range of subjects would be more difficult to obtain, but would have more value in the eyes of employers and institutions of higher education. Every student could seek to obtain the most advanced diploma he or she is capable of attaining, and hence diplomas would become a useful source of information about a student’s competencies. Diplomas could be awarded by individual schools or by educational certification agencies. There is no need for the government to get involved. In fact, government involvement, as noted above, would muck up the process.

Government intervention in any industry is fraught with unintended consequences, and this is true most of all in education, the field into which governments have intruded most aggressively.