Don’t pull the plug on comprehensive exams

There is a late-night television advertisement suggesting that jellyfish have the secret to better memory function. Exactly what, in the name of Darwin, jellyfish need to remember isn’t clear, nor is the reason why some ingredient extracted from jellyfish will boost our memories.

Unlike the questions raised by late night TV ads, the issue of memory is a serious one in economics, and nowhere more critical than in the area of workforce job skills.

The growing gap in job skills has been well-documented in recent years, including by the U.S. Department of Education, whose report, “Making Skills Everybody’s Business,” published in February 2015, described the size and implications of the problem using data collected by the Organization for Economic Development (OECD).

Within our adult labor force, 17 percent have inadequate literacy skills and 28 percent lack adequate numeracy skills. Compared with the developed economies of Europe and Japan, our workforce skill levels earn us eighth place in literacy and eleventh in basic math.

From a broad economics standpoint, then, we have two related problems: The first is that our workforce does not have the skills needed to fill today’s or tomorrow’s jobs; the second is that our workplace skill levels place us at a disadvantage in global competition. You don’t stay a world leader for long if your workforce capabilities put you at the bottom of the list.

Innovation, ingenuity, automation, and creativity still flourish in America and these are being substituted for workforce skills. This has allowed us to remain competitive in global markets in some products and services — but it has also revealed troubling mismatches in our economy. We have sluggish economic growth and incomes, at the same time we have jobs unfilled for lack of skilled labor.

How does memory fit into all this? It is at the heart of all human skills. We remember things and then recognize them, we remember how to do things, we remember how things fit together, and we remember how to learn.

Our knowledge of how memory itself works is growing rapidly thanks to the scientific research focused on the subject. One of the things that scientists have confirmed is this: a memory that is not refreshed tends to languish and fade. This, of course, is the source of the sports and fitness adage, “Use it or lose it.”

The need for periodic refreshment of memory is well known in sports. We all know the wonderful stories about professional basketball star Larry Bird remaining after games, the fans and the teams long gone, so he could practice the shots he felt needed work. Now, if anybody already knew how to shoot a basketball it was Larry Bird — but he recognized the need to refresh his brain-muscle memory so that the shots seemed instinctive.

It wasn’t sports, however, but popular music that supplied the man who best described the need for skill-memory refreshing. Singer Tony Bennett once said, “If I don’t practice my scales for a day, I know it. If I don’t practice for two days, the band knows it. And if I don’t practice for three days, the audience knows it.”

As important as practice is to refresh memory and skills, most of us devote little time to it. More significantly, the idea of practice of learned skills has fallen out of favor in many of our educational systems. As a result, courses and their exams are considered, by students especially, as discrete events — with little or no cost attached to forgetting them once the final grade has been recorded.

One result of this is that comprehensive exams — even for a single course — have become something to be dreaded and, more importantly, resisted. High school exit exams, for example, are being dropped by educational systems across the country, largely because of opposition from students, parents, teachers, and politicians.

There is a certain irony in that, of course for it is happening at the time when they are most needed. Neither life nor the workplace tests us on the last thing we learned. They test us on what we need to know.

Students, parents, and teachers have a point, though, about the comprehensive exams as they are currently structured. In our haste to “fix” the deterioration of basic skills the exams were introduced without considering the preparation and practice necessary to pass them.

We shouldn’t give up on comprehensive examinations. They are important, and aren’t as intimidating if we take classroom quizzes and questions every day — focused on recalled skills. That’s how practice “makes it look easy” in sports, in music, and in the workplace. It is only when our unrefreshed memory has faded that the questions are difficult. Hold the jellyfish; practice instead.

James McCusker is a Bothell economist, educator and consultant. He also writes a column for the monthly Herald Business Journal

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