Are Tests Biased Against Students Who Don’t Care?

The Onion reports on a shocking new statistical study. Warning: some foul language. If the stream doesn’t work, click the link below the video window.

In The Know: Are Tests Biased Against Students Who Don’t Care?

I am in a position to verify these results. Of those students who took my classes, those who didn’t care—e.g. those who skip and then ask, “Did I miss anything?”, or those who sit in the back with dazed looks and answer “What?” to questions put to them—did far worse than those who did care. I won’t show the distributions of grades for both groups, but can tell you that those who care far more often earn passing marks.

Is it time to arrest this shocking disparity? Should we modify the way we assess student knowledge as the lady in the video says? “It’s time to test these kids on what they know, not what we want them to know.”

But, for those who don’t care, perhaps it’s not entirely their fault. Could it be that the conversion of higher education into a factory has something to do with student attitudes?

A factory, of course, is a place in which raw material is stamped and molded by machine to produce identical products. Inferior material input into the process results in substandard output. Lower quality materials are used typically because of the desire to increase output: quality suffers for quantity.

Naturally, if the desire for quantity is great enough, less reliable machinery is also put to use, machinery which is apt to increase the rate of faulty product coming off the line.

The factory foremen, line managers, and owners know this must be true, yet they are often willing to sacrifice reputation by releasing inferior product simply for short term profit.

At Cornell, for example, the Dean of Arts & Sciences thought it would be a good idea to whack “four of its seven assistant professor positions” in the math department. And now:

In past years, Math 1710, Math 1910 and Math 1920 were each spread across multiple lectures that rarely exceeded 30 students. This year, with 35 lectures in the Math department eliminated, Math 1710 nearly tripled in size; Math 1910 swelled to one 94-student lecture; and Math 1920 was coalesced into a 138-student classroom.

Math 1910 is Calculus for Engineers; Math 1920 is Multivariable Calculus for Engineers. The only reason somebody would think that 138—or even 94—kids in a room could learn advanced calculus is if they thought this subject trivial, one that can be compressed into easily digestible bullet points.

He would have to believe that teaching this subject requires no feedback from the students to the professor. For example, if every kid in that class tried to ask but one question, time would expire long before everybody could ask something.

He would believe that any student could learn it: just cram them all in and they will get it.

Is it a wonder that some students cease caring in an environment like that?


  1. DrChaos

    Interesting! There is a debate over here in Ireland on the continuing decline in what you would call High School maths (pre-university/college). In the 90s, there was general decline in student interest – perhaps due to the rise of the internet and other distractions, and so the results got worse and worse. So our solution was to make the exams easier, ditch any hard stuff on applications of integration etc. And guess what, the standards continued to decline, and so the exams keep getting easier in some sort of bizarre race to the bottom. Now when students enter college to do engineering or science, they find it really difficult. Who’d have figured? I’m not sure how you would even start to reverse this process…

  2. PJ

    Hey. School is supposed to prepare kids for the real world, and in the real world people don’t give a shit.

  3. Ari


    Thank you. This is what I was getting at before– it’s a two-sided issue.

    How about schools cramming dozens of students into cramped rooms with TAs who don’t speak English– or who speak English so poorly as to be impossible to understand?

    I had a class with 250 students! 250! I was fortunate that the professor was incredibly passionate, caring, and engaging. Just as importantly, I had a TA who was devoted to teaching and intelligent enough to handle the material (political philosophy.) I heard not everyone got a great TA, though, and the class suffered for them.

    I can’t even imagine how awful my math classes would have been had they been taught in similar situations. Luckily for me (seriously) I did most of my math in community college in small classes with retired professors who just wanted something to keep busy in their twilight years.

    I can see why so many people send their kids to small liberal arts colleges instead of the big factories. It’s hard to get an education in big schools if you’re not really trying.

  4. Bernie

    One look at the test scores of many HS teachers explains an awful lot. Teachers who performed poorly on these tests work hard to delegitimate them causing their students to not try. This is one reason for the ongoing achievement gap for minorities.
    I went looking for what should be some easy to design and execute research – I could not find any nor any reference to to such research. I would have thought that the College Board or ETS would have done something in this area. Perhaps it would be too embarrassing.

  5. Ray

    I went to a high school that had a senior course titled “introduction to calculus and analytical geometry”. That course made it easy when I went to college. As an engineering major I was required to take the two semester freshman calculus course. A lot of it was a repeat of the high school course. I later took the elective two semester advanced calculus course. My education in calculus must have been deficient. Can somebody tell me what the heck is multivariable calculus?

  6. Katie

    I met a woman in the late 1980s who was an older undergraduate and mother of two young children. Her goal was to be a teacher but she was told outright by her (education) professors not to pursue teaching. As my acquaintance was a straight-A student the articulated fear was that as a teacher she would “demand too much of her students.”

    The message that learning requires effort has been lost. My 9th grade algebra used to say that if we weren’t “burning calories” we weren’t learning. Imagine the trouble he would be in if he made such a bold and brutal statement today.

  7. DavidC

    I don’t quite know where to start. My own confrontation with math class came in “Advanced Calculus for Applications” taught by a full professor in the engineering department. Even though I majored in Physics, my adviser strongly recommended this course for all his students. The class had no more than 20 students. As first, it felt to me like a thrice-weekly humiliation, perhaps because it was. But I soon learned to survive by doing the homework assignments, asking questions, and paying attention. I won’t say it was the height of my academic arc but I did much better than I expected. And I can still use some of the 19 orthogonal coordinate systems.

    But the real application to your situation is simple. It is impossible to learn, that is to learn from errors, in the classroom you describe. I didn’t see a focus on that issue at all in the faculty letter. Give them all a copy of “The Talent Code” to see how to impart knowledge, if they need a reference. Making errors and the subsequent motivation plays a key role in making knowledge permanent.

    If I walked into a class room like that in a subject like that, I would conclude the school really isn’t interested in whether I actually learn anything: Perhaps that contributes to the lassitude of today’s students.


  8. I don’t believe this situation reflects so much on the students, or rather their lack of assertiveness and obstinacy in demanding an “education” per se from an institution of higher learning. What it says to me is that this facility is more interested in “humanity issues” than the nuts and bolts of providing an actual learning environment. Without knowing anything further about that particular dean than this I understand he/she was not placed in that position due to subject matter competence. Hardly. This dean is there because she/he understands and supports the greater narrative of the powers-that-be of this mother institution. And that narrative has all to do with PC manure and nothing to do with students actually learning anything of substance. How the Ivies have fallen.

  9. bob

    There were quite a few”don’t give a damned” kids in my college freshman class, and it was accepted that most state supported schools had established flunk-out courses to weed out these unwelcome charges. I was on the leading edge of the boomer generation kids that swamped colleges in the sixties.

    When I sent my kids to private universities, I did so because of the lower student to teacher ratios at those institutions. I was surprised that there were not flunk-out courses, but all schools had programs to keep their tuition paying students in school.

  10. Ari


    To be fair, though, there are plenty good people at some of the top publics– Cal, Michigan, UCLA, UVA, W&M.

    I think, however, that it’s also safe to say that those publics have, inasmuch as possible, privatized themselves and become what is essentially a pseudo-private university.

    I still hear old professors at my alma mater (UCLA) saying how they wish UCLA could go private. Quietly, in hush-hushed tones, of course.

  11. JH

    Hmmm, granted that apathetic students are not necessary dumb and ignorant, but what is an unbiased test for apathetic students? What are the criteria for being unbiased? I do know what the definition of an unbiased estimator, though.

    Well, if students themselves don’t care about learning, I don’t see why I should care about them. I rather direct my energy towards those who care. Thankfully, there are still many good students out there, which makes teaching the same basic concepts worthwhile.

  12. stosh

    As best as I can tell, the approach modern theorists in academia take in dealing with a particular subset of students who appear (on the basis of test results) to be underperforming is to push for more faculty representing that subset of students, presumably on the assumption that those faculty members will act as role models, identify with and underderstand the special concerns of that group, and, as well, help boost the self-esteem of the students in question.

    On that basis, improving the grades of students who don’t care is trivial – just hire more faculty who really don’t give a rip themselves.

  13. Rafe

    I once went on an excellent “better lecturing” course. The instructors asked us to indicate whether we preferred symbols to diagrams (yes), theory and applications vs learning from examples (yes), and so forth. We were virtually unanimous in our answers and were universally shocked to be told 99% of our students would give opposite answers to our own – apparently this is a characteristic of us lot who end up hanging around in academia. Afterwards, when I adapted my teaching style in the light of this new understanding, student interest picked up dramatically.

  14. Adam H

    To test out of college core classes, high schoolers can take national “AP” (advanced placement) tests. If they do well on the tests, colleges (can) just give them credit for the classes. That’s fine. The problem as I see it is that the tests are COMPLETELY graded on a curve. About 10% of the kids who take it get the highest possible grade, regardless of how they actually do.

    Combine this with the downward spiral of education. I got a “perfect” score on my AP Calculus test (I probably got ~1/3 of the questions wrong), received credit for Calculus 1 AND 2 at a prestigious university, took a multivariable calculus class my freshman year, and realized I had absolutely no clue about anything, or at least that’s what it felt like. I would have failed by any reasonable person’s standards. “Luckily” for me, my professor felt sympathetic (or whatever) and gave me a B- (above average?!?). I am ashamed…

  15. Ken

    My observation, as a student, is that class size & other easily quantifiable measures are secondary to student motiviation — which may not necessarily be the same thing as interest.

    Those that want to excel will drive themselves even in subjects they have to take but in which they have little interest. This is too common in overall degree programs, such as the MBA, in which students want the credential & will “coast along” — sometime even conspiring to lower instructor expectations by discouraging anyone from excelling (or excelling too much). Unfortunately, sometimes with some profs that actually works.

    Ultimately, what we need to recall, is that universities are really just presenting the basics & core knowledge & the real work they’re doing is facilitating the student’s ability to learn how to teach themselves to learn. Ultimately, when we get out of the ivory tower into the real world there’s nobody there but us to make a go of things.

    This theme that if a student doesn’t learn its the teacher’s fault ought not, at the university level, be true — that it is being presented as a major factor (even outside The Onion) is another indicator of the nanny-state mentality facilitating a mindset that scapegoats others for one’s lack of effort, planning, perserverence, etc. etc. etc.

  16. SM

    I went to Brooklyn Tech HS in nyc. It wasn’t the student’s who didn’t care. I recall more teachers than I should who didn’t care or even worse…

    My sophomore Chemistry teacher (1st semester) never taught the class anything. He came in with a camera on several occasions and tried to take pictures of the girls in class. He also brought in a magazine once with a photo of one of his former students – half naked. He came in before thanksgiving with a camera wanting to take pictures again. I told him if he took a picture of me, I’d break his camera. He didn’t take one.

    When I tried to answer questions, he told me to “sit there and look pretty”. I was failing and right before winter break he made a deal in front of the whole class to pass me if I let him take a picture of me, right there, in front of the whole class. I told him he was lying and he said the whole class was my witness. So, he took the picture, failed me, and when I confronted him, he said, “I was just trying to teach you the lesson that all men lie.”

    Thanks to Dr. Melnick, I learned all I needed to know except for chemistry. Yay!

    After telling on Dr. Melnick, I found out that several other female students had complained about him. He was given a slap on the wrist, disappreared for a semester and then I found out he returned when he tapped me on the shoulder one day. (One of the best moments of my life- Thank you teacher’s union!)

    He wasn’t the only creepy teacher who didn’t really teach in Brooklyn Tech. In fact, I have to thank the principal, Dr. McCaskill for all his efforts to make the school a great place for students while I was there … also, thank you DOE, the whole experience definitely prepared me for the real world.

  17. Dave Bob

    One of my most strict and demanding engineering profs called the don’t-care people “registrants” to distinguish them from “students.”

  18. DJ

    While I really admire and appreciate the discussion present on this message board, I feel the need to mention something that has not yet been (even implicitly) mentioned: it’s a joke!

    The Onion is a satirical newspaper, and everything they publish is tongue-in-cheek joking. There was no statistical study about this. It was a fake news report to make fun of the extreme (and flawed) emphasis put on standardized testing.

    As a HS teacher who cares very much about his students success in both school and life, I do find it refreshing to see that at least someone notices how ridiculous it is to condemn teachers and hold their jobs in jeopardy based on a test for which there is no accountability for the students and parents.

    Finally, I recognize that the bulk of the discussion has focused on college and university classrooms. It is an excellent discussion, but I am addressing the video itself, which is talking about standardized testing in public grade schools.

    Thank you for reading my little rant! 🙂

    @Bernie: From my experience, teachers do not delegitimatize these tests to the students; quite the opposite, we try desperately to explain to them why these tests matter. However, any semi-intelligent student has realized that there are absolutely no short-term (and very little long-term) effects on them personally based on these tests. There are no consequences for them, so they say, “Why should I bother putting forth effort when I could be sleeping or screwing around with my friends?”

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