Sunday, November 28, 2010

Other reasons for grade reversal

In a piece in today's New York Times Week in Review entitled "No More A's for Good Behavior," Peg Tyre discusses how some schools have become concerned about a discrepancy between students' grades and their standardized test scores. For example, at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota:

About 10 percent of the students who earned A’s and B’s in school stumbled during end-of-the-year exams. By contrast, about 10 percent of students who scraped along with C’s, D’s and even F’s — students who turned in homework late, never raised their hands and generally seemed turned off by school — did better than their eager-to-please B+ classmates.
This discrepancy, the article argues, is too large to be explained by how well different students test and how well different teachers teach to the test. The additional factors that school officials in Austin, and Peg Tyre in this article, consider mainly relate to how compliant and organized students are: students, it seems, are being graded for friendliness, behavior, timeliness, remembering supplies and permission slips, completing homework, being a "good school citizen," raising their hands before shouting out answers, being well-organized and hard working, and being well-liked by the teacher, rather than for mastering the course material.

I've witnessed this discrepancy myself, and it's even more obvious if the tests you compare students' grades to, unlike most of today's Standards-Based tests, don't place a low ceiling on measured ability. Back when I helped run an after-school math team at our school--before we were told we had to admit children on a first-come, first-served basis--we gave kids a high-ceilinged placement test which clearly identified a number of the top mathematical outliers. Later we'd hear reports from parents of how some of these top achievers were earning lower grades than their weaker peers.

When it comes to math buffs in particular, and other academically gifted children, there are other troubling reasons for today's discrepancies between standardized test performance and grades that the article doesn't consider. There's the dumbing down of the curriculum and elimination of much of the academic content, such that it's harder and harder to demonstrate high aptitude and teacher-pleasing levels of motivation and effort; there's the reservation of top grades for those students who show the most colorful visual "creativity"; there are the points taken off for unexplained answers to the kinds of math problems that math buffs do in their heads, and, conversely, the partial credit given to incorrect but explained answers; and there are the organizational challenges of today's large, interdisciplinary projects and the emphasis on neatness and cooperating with peers, all of which challenge the many asynchronously developing gifted children. 

The Austin school district's attempts to remove the discrepancy between grades and test scores only goes so far.  They now use what's called "standards-based grading" in which students no longer lose points for incomplete homework. But how much of an improvement such grading actually is depends on how high the ceiling on the underlying standards is, and, in these days of No Child Left Behind, state standards tend towards very low ceilings. Furthermore, Austin's new "standards-based" grades are misleadingly called "knowledge grades" (as if high academic achievement depends only on knowledge), co-occur with "life skills grades," (suggesting a dichotomy between academics--mere knowledge--and life skills--so much more), and homework completion still influences grade determinations:
When parents of students at Ellis Middle School look over their children’s report cards, they will find a so-called “knowledge grade,” which will be calculated by averaging the scores on end-of-unit tests. (Those tests can be retaken any time during the semester so long as a student has completed all homework.) 
(In addition to an academic grade, the 950 students at the school will get a separate “life skills” grade for each class that reflects their work habits and other, more subjective, measures like attitude, effort and citizenship. )
One reason for Austin's cautiousness may the the large numbers of loudly protesting parents. Here's what one of them has to say: 
“Does the old system reward compliance? Yes. Do those who fit in the box of school do better? Yes. But to revamp the policy in a way that could be of detriment to the kids who do well is not the answer.” In the real world, she points out, attitude counts.


Anonymous said...

A good attitude and attentiveness/perseverance will usually get you better grades anyway, since they help with learning. I see no reason not to separate out the actual achievement from the "soft skills," so at least parents can know if their child knows the basic information and skills, or not.

kcab said...

I would welcome a grading change like this, even though my middle-schooler is one of those who gets all the extra points for Kleenex & the like. I find having so much of the grade based on non-content makes it difficult to know what she's learned and what I need to review with her. This type of system would also be a clear win for my younger, introverted math guy.

I also don't have a problem with indicating the other factors (attitude/life skills). The elementary report cards here separate out those things and report them using a different system. It's useful for me to know if my kid is participating, is respectful, etc, if only because we can then talk about what types of behavior are looked for in school.

Nancy Bea Miller said...

I agree with kcab's comment. My kids are well-behaved as well as academic, but I'd be okay with them losing any fuzzy "good behavior" points. It'd be a good idea to have a separate rating or grade for the social stuff, although it should NOT count towards calculating GPA in my opinion.