ACE Really Is That Bad. (Also Announcing a New Series!)

ACE Really Is That Bad. (Also Announcing a New Series!) October 7, 2017

A while ago, we were talking about Accelerated Christian Education (ACE), a popular Christian homeschooling system. To say the least, we were not particularly impressed with it. Adding fuel to that fire, Jonny Scaramanga has co-written a peer-reviewed paper that examines ACE and finds it wanting in many key respects. So it’s not our imaginations–ACE really is just as bad as we thought.

An abandoned schoolhouse. (Joanna Poe, CC-SA.) Will you be surprised to learn that it's in Indiana?
An abandoned schoolhouse. (Joanna Poe, CC-SA.) Will you be surprised to learn that it’s in Indiana?

Caveat Emptor.

Back in my adolescence, college certainly wasn’t considered totally necessary. That said, most of my peers expected to get a degree from somewhere or other. A higher education meant vastly increased opportunities, something our parents drilled into us from childhood onward. In the 1980s when I was in high school, we could take more difficult courses called Advanced Placement (AP) that would help us even more–colleges often waived some of their core class requirements if we’d taken these and then did well on an exam they offered to make sure we’d mastered the material in question (I got out of two semesters of basic French that way, as well as several other freshman-level core classes). But even if we didn’t take any of those AP courses, we expected that we were at least prepared for basic college-level work. Catch-up remedial classes existed, but very few people needed them.

Things have sure changed since then!

In 2014, Forbes noted that “a college degree is the new high school diploma.” Young people are expected to graduate from college; moreover, most will be living with their parents at least until they graduate from college because that higher education is simply so much more expensive, even taking inflation into account, than it ever was back when most of us old folks were going to college.

Worse, there’s no assurance whatsoever that a kid’s pre-college education will actually be a good foundation for college. The college entrance-exam test giant ACT tested about half of all 2012 high-school graduates in the entire United States. They discovered that 2/3 of those kids were actually academically ready in English, while a third were ready for college-level science classes–and about half were ready for college-level math or reading work. Only 25% of the tested students met college-level benchmarks in all four of those subjects. That’s some sobering stuff right there, even if the report notes that there have been some slight improvements in readiness.

One can’t blame parents for being worried. Many of those worried parents are seeking out alternative programs to help their kids get a good foundation for college. All manner of these alternative educational systems exist now, but it’s very much a buyer-beware market.

Unfortunately, many parents still think that alternative forms of education, like private and charter schools, are automatically better–providing higher-quality education and more opportunities after graduation. But this is certainly not the case. The Network for Public Education grimly notes that “Charter school failures and scandals occur nearly every day.” And, too, there is comedian and night-show host John Oliver’s equally grim assessment of charter schools:

One can hardly blame growing numbers of parents for deciding to take their children’s education very literally into their own hands by homeschooling their kids.

Homeschooling, Defined.

You can’t even buy a [homeschooling] planner sometimes without there being Bible verses on it.

Laura Smith, a non-religious homeschooling parent

Homeschooling is the practice of educating children at home rather than sending them to public or private school with other kids. Typically the homeschooling parent doesn’t work outside the house and is not trained in the field of education. These parents must rely instead upon various homeschooling curricula to create school courses for their children. As a result of that demand, businesses creating and offering these courses for sale have sprung up like weeds. Parents may mix and match courses from different companies to create a custom-designed experience for their kids–often to match their ideological stances. (I once read a Christian lawyer’s blog wherein he mentioned that he used a very fundagelical company’s courses for everything except science, since he wasn’t a Young Earth Creationist himself and wanted his kids to learn real science rather than pseudoscience.)

Many states in the United States have ways of tracking homeschooling families, and evaluating kids’ progress in various subjects. But some don’t monitor or regulate homeschooling parents at all, so it’s very easy for homeschooled kids to fall through the cracks. We don’t even really know how many kids are involved in homeschooling; we think it’s around 850,000 kids. We do know that almost all of those kids are white and that the vast majority are being homeschooled for religious reasons.

Where there are tons of fundagelicals, one can expect to find grifters eager to fleece those sheep.

Indeed, it’s hard to get information about homeschooling from sites and groups that aren’t religious in nature. Homeschooling in this country is irrevocably entwined with extremist forms of religion, to the point where it’s difficult for a more moderate Christian (like that lawyer)–and even more difficult for atheists–to find courses that aren’t tilted toward that wackadoodle brand of science-denial and revisionist history that fundagelicals like best. And that’s a shame, since about a quarter of homeschoolers are secular in nature (and they’re very annoyed about the lack of non-religious materials available).

Accelerated Toward What?

One of the most popular fundagelical homeschooling companies offering courses is called ACE, or Accelerated Christian Education. ACE offers parents a variety of modules or packets, called PACEs, to drill their kids through. Each packet ends with a test for the students to endure take.

Founded in 1970 and self-described as a “ministry,” ACE offers only courses designed for Biblical literalists: Creationist pseudoscience, English, math, and revisionist history, all presented in a style of learning they probably think is Socratic but what in reality is best described as “what fundagelicals think big-shot courtroom lawyers talk like.”

I’ve talked before about the shortcomings of this kind of homeschooling. It seems to me that ACE is “accelerating” fundagelical kids into fundagelical colleges, after which they’ll graduate knowing nothing but fundagelical talking points. Hooray Team Jesus!

But it turns out that this low opinion isn’t simply my imagination talking. ACE really is that bad.

Shocked, Yes, Shocked We Are.

Our well-respected Patheos colleague Jonny Scaramanga has been a vocal critic of ACE from just about his first days as an atheist blogger. His opinion comes from both his personal background and his studies in college. As it turns out, he’s just co-written his first peer-reviewed paper on exactly that topic.

It’s called “The suitability of the International Certificate of Christian Education as an examination for university entrance,” and it appears in the peer-reviewed Oxford Review of Education.

Noting that more and more students are entering the university system with this certificate (abbreviated as the ICCE), which is given to students after completion of the ACE program, Jonny and his co-author assessed its validity as a marker of college readiness.

I know you’ll all be totally shocked to discover that ACE, despite being touted as a perfectly valid equivalent to advanced-level high school studies, is nothing of the kind.

Hypocrisy, Thy Name is Christianity.

When you hear fundagelicals squinching up their preacher eyebrows and simpering about just how much they just want public school students to just be able to just make up their own minds about stuff like the Theory of Evolution, remember, please, that Creationists’ flagship educational system, ACE, comes out savagely against the idea of free will or independent thought in children. It is about rigid indoctrination, nothing more, and intended to be backed up by punishment and domination of the children subjected to it. Everything ACE “teaches” homeschooling parents to do goes directly against every single theory we have about healthy education and childrearing.

Given those shortcomings, it shouldn’t be any surprise at all to discover that when kids who are taught according to ACE’s ideas get out into the real world, they struggle mightily to get up to speed–or don’t ever manage the task at all.

They are not meant to.

Jonny’s paper notes drily that ACE isn’t actually intended to be a real educational system–and even its creators say as much. He quotes an ACE leader as saying that their program is actually “a Christian Character training program designed to turn out Christian leaders,” so those creators demand that the ICCE be evaluated not against regular academic standards, but on their own terms. Jonny apparently said Well, if that’s the way you want it, then all righty then, and set off to do exactly that. He evaluated whether or not ACE’s certificate program actually adequately measures ACE’s own stated objectives for student achievement.

Hoist With Their Own Petard.

ACE doesn’t fare any better that way than it does when measured against current educational theories and standards, unfortunately for the Christians using it.

The first problem that Jonny encountered was that ACE has never gotten around to stating how ICCE test scores should be interpreted or used. That makes it impossible to evaluate ACE by its own standards–since its creators have never actually set any standards at all (and many of the ACE module tests don’t even actually state what their learning objectives are). Oops! So instead, the paper examines what ACE module tests actually do measure, since those scores together are combined to get the student’s ICCE certificate level.

Unfortunately, there, too, ACE falls apart.

See, learning in schools is commonly divided into six dimensions. The two most basic of those dimensions are knowledge and comprehension. It goes up from there. The first term, “knowledge,” pertains to simply being able to memorize or parrot information. “Comprehension” is more demonstrative of a student’s understanding of the topic; in this dimension, a student explains or paraphrases the information gained in the knowledge step. Most of the ACE module tests evaluate learning with these two dimensions alone. Very seldom do they stray upward from those two most basic levels of learning. Most of the higher levels of learning, like synthesis and evaluation, aren’t tested at all in even the most advanced modules.

Jonny concludes, based upon the ACE module tests’ own objectives, that “it becomes clear that the PACEs, in the main, do not aim to develop higher-order thinking skills; overall 86% of learning objectives are at the knowledge or comprehension level.” So he decides to at least see if the module tests correctly evaluate even these low-level objectives.

And there, too, ACE fails.

One module about the Anabaptist movement actually has students answer test questions not about the topic of the module, but instead has them fill in blanks about how to “reject that which glorifies sin” and “read what is profitable for spiritual growth.”

In fact, many of these module tests only barely measure their own objectives. Barely a quarter of the module tests adequately managed the task. 41% of the learning objectives were inadequately measured. 32% of the objectives weren’t measured at all. Often an objective at the comprehension level was only tested at the knowledge level–or was entirely skipped. Most of the tests were simple fill-in-the-blanks affairs that depended merely on rote recall and memorization, and often even that meager evaluation was geared toward Sunday-School rah-rah rather than anything useful (and ACE demands exact matches for its fill-in-the-blanks tests, sharply penalizing students for wording anything differently). Others are really obvious multiple-choice questions or word-match exercises. Of one of these tests, the paper notes:

Seven of the examined English PACEs included an evaluation objective. Of these, four contain no evaluation activities. The opportunities that do arise are quite restrictive. English 1121 (p. 16), intended for students in their third year of high school, asks: ‘Do you think “Housewifery” is a good title for the poem? Why, or why not?’ There is one line on which to write the answer.

Not one of the module tests involves analysis or evaluation of material learned. And except for a few standouts in the English packets, none has students creating anything new (in these cases, students diagrammed sentences, for the most part). Should a student wish to retake the test for a better grade, ACE allows them to do so up to four total times–all using the exact same test questions. I’m sure that any public-school heathen can understand why that’s a serious problem for ACE’s validity.

And again, this is evaluating ACE on its own terms, as its creators have demanded. We’re not even getting into the serious number of fundagelical-leaning test questions that are irrelevant to secular college admissions boards. ACE, of course, offers those boards absolutely no way of knowing how much of the student’s score was based on those irrelevant religious questions or on real actual academic knowledge.

The paper concludes that ICCE simply “falls well short” as an accreditation standard compared to “the most widely available alternatives in England.” Tests often fail to measure their modules’ own stated objectives, it’s too easy for a student to take those tests without really understanding the material measured by those tests, and there’s no evidence at all to suggest that students will retain the information after the test is done and gone. Further, ACE’s tests evaluate subjects that most colleges won’t care about.

The authors call upon ACE to “ensure that students are prepared for high quality, nationally recognised qualifications.”

Yeah, not gonna happen.

ACE’s creators consider what they’re doing as more of a ministry than an educational effort. That means that they care a lot more about evangelizing and indoctrinating kids than they do about adequately educating them. Their goal is to create Christian adults, not educated adults.

Oh, and there’s a #NotAllChristians disclaimer at the very end, where the paper labors to clarify that it’s totally not making “an attack on religion,” but rather evaluating the ICCE offered up by ACE as a statement of a student’s readiness for college. Just because one of the biggest fundagelical homeschooling groups out there is totally dishonest about the quality of the education its marks are receiving, that doesn’t mean anything about Christianity. Right? Remember that! (j-law_okay_thumbsup.gif) (Also: wanna bet that disclaimer wasn’t totally Jonny’s idea?)

So it’s really not our imaginations. ACE really and truly is that bad, and someone’s finally done an in-depth investigation into why it’s that bad.

(My greatest thanks and hat-tip to Jonny for giving me access to the full paper and permission to discuss it here–I hope I did it justice.)

New Feature Coming Soon!

I’m sure most of y’all have noticed that Mark Driscoll’s got himself a blog on Patheos now. I noticed in comments that people have already seen that he’s got his comments turned off on it, too. And that makes me sooooo sad. How can someone possibly grow intellectually and interact with readers without getting that essential feedback? I really believe that blogging, as a medium, should be a two-way flow of information. It’s an interactive art form, in a very real sense. Comments are easily most of the fun of blogging, for me anyway. I’m very sad that Mark Driscoll doesn’t want that interaction.

So out of the goodness of my sweet, innocent heart (and completely not because I am a wicked heathen scamp tickled pink by this idea), next week I am going to open OT chatter posts to allow us to comment on selected posts of his. We needed to restart those anyway, since Disqus is starting to buckle under us on that long stretch from Caturday Saturday to Tuesday.

Why do you comment on Mark Driscoll posts? -- He is Mark Driscoll. Fundagelical. He cannot endure comments. So we comment for him.
Why do we comment on Mark Driscoll posts? — He is Mark Driscoll. Fundagelical. He cannot endure comments. So we comment for him.

On these OT posts, you can go OT as usual, or you can write a response to the blog post I select. If you don’t want to talk about Mark Driscoll, then just carry on as usual for a LSP post. I’ll be archiving the posts selected, so you don’t even have to click on his blog to see what he wrote.

There may well be some drive-by Christians dropping by once they notice what we’re up to. The same ROE applies to comments as it always has: this is not an arena fight between Christians and non-Christians. We already know that Christians don’t have a bit of evidence for their claims and that their arguments are sheer trash. I’m completely not interested in hosting more of that nonsense.

No, this new thing is just us snarking a disgraced Christian pastor who appears to be very, very interested in wiping away his sordid past and starting over with a new flock of victims.

Can’t wait to see what y’all have to say on Monday. See you then!

And since it is in fact Caturday…

Bother's not at her best when she first wakes up either.
Bother’s not at her best when she first wakes up either.

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