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Freeing the High Schools

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Eight years ago, almost all of the two hundred and fifty accredited colleges in the United States agreed to waive their detailed entrance requirements, for an experimental group of thirty schools, all over the country. They freed these schools from the obligation to teach certain required subjects, and merely asked for a principal's recommendation, and usually the results of the Scholastic Aptitude, and Comprehensive English examinations. After eight years, they compared the records made by the thirty schools' graduates with those of an ordinary school group, with respect to academic success, adjustment to the college, extra-curricular activities, and several other standards. The experimental group, they found, did slightly better on the average than the control group, and they decided to continue and extend the plan for another three years.

Harvard, too, agreed, in principle, and joined in the experiment. It did not, however, change the requirement of three examinations chosen from a number of "academic" subjects, in addition to the English exam. Thus it prescribed the curriculum of these courses, and seriously hampered the development of new programs of study, especially in the senior years of high school. Most pupils are in small high schools, with a limited number of courses. Only one out of every six goes to college. Examinations in set academic subjects, then, force the curriculum to adapt itself to the needs of the minority. The important teaching jobs of vocational guidance, education in social relations, and training for citizenship must necessarily suffer.

Harvard admissions authorities feel that the findings of the experiment are not conclusive. They say that entrance exams provide an objective check on the student by someone who has not been teaching him, and they intend to continue their use. Any solution to the problem must lie somewhere between the two extremes of absolute freedom for the school, and rigid examination requirements by the college. The College Entrance Board seems at present to be tending toward a mean itself, fortunately, with Harvard's cooperation. Its examinations are more and more becoming the broad survey type, offering questions for students with all sorts of backgrounds of knowledge, and emphasizing close reasoning rather than accumulation of facts. the new mathematics achievement tests which have replaced exams in the special field of math are one example. So are the combined modern history and government, and the combined chemistry and biology exams. Then there is the plan whereby exceptional students can take two of the four exams at the end of their Junior year, leaving room for experimentation is courses during their Senior year.

Examinations by an outside agency are an invaluable aid to admissions authorities in comparing the abilities of students with differing educational backgrounds. They are injurious to high school education only when they stultify it. A broad and more flexible exam program, testing ability rather then information, deserves the whole-hearted encouragement of all educators.

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