Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Aiming for mediocrity

The largest school district in Maryland, the Montgomery County Public Schools, has unrolled a new grading system for elementary school. The scale now runs from N to ES:

N: Not yet making progress or making minimal progress toward meeting the grade-level standard  
I: In progress toward meeting the grade-level standard  
P: Meets the grade-level standard by demonstrating proficiency of the content or processes for the measurement topic   
ES: Exceptional at the grade-level standard
At one school, officials explained the new system via the following analogy:
N - cannot ride a bike  
I - rides a bike with training wheels  
P - rides a bike with two wheels  
ES - rides a Pogo stick
“Ride a Pogo stick? What does that mean?” This was one of many recent reactions on a Listserv for parents of gifted kids. Nor is it this parent's only concern. When the new grading system was first unveiled, she was told that an "ES" was no longer a realistic expectation and that all kids should, in the words of a school flyer proclaimed, “Aim for a P.”

“P” as in proficient, that is; not “P” as in “Pogostick.”

What does it take to propel oneself from “P” to “P”—i.e., to “ES”? It’s not so clear. One parent asked her daughter’s teacher what grade a 73 out of 100 would translate into. “Answer: P.” How about a 93 out of 100? “P” as well. Another teacher said that getting 100 on every math test doesn’t guarantee an “ES.” And one parent whose son's reading measured at an "S" level (end of fourth grade) in the first quarter of third grade received an "I" in Reading.

When one parent asked for examples of what it would take to earn an ES in math, the teacher wrote:
I cannot send home examples of students' work on how to answer an ES opportunity question. Part of demonstrating exceptional understanding of the content is being able to independently apply the content learned and independently develop and explain the math reasoning used to solve the problem. It is through this independence and understanding that a student demonstrates his/her exceptional ability. There isn't direct instruction on how to answer an ES opportunity question.
In other words, teachers aren’t teaching to the ES-level; only to "P". It’s entirely on the students to figure out what they need to do to get an ES—or even that there is something out that they need figure out. The ball is in entirely their court, and most of them don’t know it.

Some parents have figured out that writing more than an assignment literally asks for can earn you an ES. But not always. One parent reports that the “payoff” for extra details in writing has recently been a P+.

Results of Montgomery County’s new system include:

--smart kids who hardly ever got ES’s, some of whom, their parents report, aren’t any less intelligent than older siblings who got As under the old system.

-- unmotivated kids who see no reason to try to get more than 73 out of 100—or to “write a paragraph along with every arithmetic problem” for the sake of an ES.

--parents who don’t know how well their kids are doing in school unless they see the raw scores (73 out of 100? 93 out of 100?), and, in particular, if their kids have truly mastered the material or are struggling with it or slacking off.

This last issue strikes me as yet another way in which feedback loops are disappearing from today’s schools. I’ve written here, here, and here about ways in which students are getting hardly any feedback on their work; with this kind of grade compression, in which nearly everyone gets a P, there's even less feedback, not only to students, but also to parents and schools, about what, if anything, is working in public education today.


Auntie Ann said...

Until the standardized tests come along to shatter expectations.

That leads to the second step in the process: dumb down the tests so that you *still* don't know how your kids are doing. Schools don't want accountability.

Hopefully, that will lead to a third step: a brand new testing system which is independent of the teachers and schools. Things like the placement tests for online courses could become very important to parents.

Anonymous said...

I have felt this frustration as well, and, reading through some of your other posts, especially feeling the frustration at the lack of feedback about the high end of performance.

But, in other discussions with those doing the evaluation, one factor that's coming up, is the perceived impossibility of discriminating among the higher performers. Examples include the compression of grades at Harvard, where, in response, teachers will say that it's very difficult to discriminate among the top performers in the class -- one might have excellent ideas, the other be an excellent writer, the other a leader in classroom discussions. They are all "good/great" students but none are superlatives, except for the rare, say, once in a couple of classes or once in a couple of years student, who might excel in all the categories (i.e. the ES criterion).

Another example is a recent analysis showing that grants awarded at NIH in the top 35% can't be distinguished (by percentile within the 35%) based on subsequent publication or citation rates. The analysis is suggestive that expert reviewers cannot effectively differentiate among the top 35% of grants, picking the ones in the top 10%, 20% and so on.

What do we do, if this is indeed the case?

Danthi N1, Wu CO, Shi P, Lauer M. Percentile ranking and citation impact of a large cohort of national heart, lung, and blood institute-funded cardiovascular r01 grants. Circ Res. 2014 Feb 14;114(4):600-6. doi: 10.1161/CIRCRESAHA.114.302656. Epub 2014 Jan 9.


C T said...

This is very painful to read.
First, "proficiency" has lost its meaning if a child can be wrong on 1/4 of an assignment and still be told they are "proficient." Do a quarter of your work wrong at nearly any job, and you're going to lose that job.
Feedback is crucial for children and adults. Can you imagine a workplace where you almost never got feedback from a supervisor? Never knew if you're doing the job well or if your yearly review is going to have unpleasant surprises? How can children be expected to learn if they're never told whether they've actually learned specific things correctly? It's all a mystery to them. When we homeschool in the mornings, I typically give my children feedback within minutes of their having done an assignment. Sure, they're disappointed if they did something wrong, but it's not a big deal because I'm correcting specific things, not labeling them with a negative letter after a year of acting as though their performance is fine.

Anonymous said...

I'm looking forward to having a heart surgeon who thinks getting things 1/4 wrong counts as proficient.

Who needs a left ventricle?

forty-two said...

I admit, I feel sort of uncomfortable at the sentiment that "the goal is to get the highest *grade*" - not to maximize *learning* - that some of the quoted parents seem to have. Who cares if the younger sibling gets a P where the older sibling got an A, if the amount of learning was the same (100% on a grade-level assessment would be both Proficient and an A in my book). I spent my school time doing whatever was needed to get that coveted A and generally not terribly much more. Not a great attitude.

But otoh, the reason I did so was because I had the learning in the bag, and did *more* than I needed to do to learn to get the A. Which isn't a great situation, and I don't know that the students who refuse to do one lick of work more than they need to become proficient aren't choosing the better path (assuming they have areas in their life where they actually have to work to learn things).

I'm guessing they refuse to give out the standards for above expectations partly to avoid grade-grubbing (and/or because the devil's in the details and it's way easier to not bother having to come up with specifics). But it completely ignores dealing with a huge underlying cause of grade-grubbing: where grades are so badly decoupled from learning for some/many kids that if they used learning as their motivation, they'd be doing *less* work, not more. And by not defining what "above the standard" actually looks like, kids have no idea what they should aim for, learning-wise. Without learning goals attached to ES, the *only* reason to aim for it is for the *grade*.

And compressing the range of grades probably makes it even worse. Personally, I rather like grading systems that include tons of above-standard stuff, where proficient at grade level might be 50% - lots of room for separating out the top. Which is the opposite of what they seem to be doing.

lgm said...

My district uses this grading system for ele. It began when full inclusion began. It's a big shock when middle school starts and they are supposed to be earning a 95 or better to qualify for the 7th grade honors/accel program. Or an 85 or better to not be placed in remedial math the following year.

Downfalls: kids that are striving to do well can't as there is nothing in class offered at the advanced, or highest, level. A 100% on every spelling test is still graded as proficient....just like an 85%. NCLB means no above grade level reading the kid who is sitting in the back of the room in 4th (front is reserved for special needs) reading his LOTR while the class is reviewing will be marked as proficient, just like the kid who is mastering Diary of a Wimpy Kid. The kid who could teach the math class, and consistently does his homework as a five minute exercise, looks the same as the kid who needs a resource teacher. need for differentiation, they look the same on paper.

Anonymous said...

The result here, 9 years into this system, is that our 8th grade Algebra numbers are half of what they were when placement and teaching in the elementary was done by instructional need.

Welcome to the soft bigotry of low expectations.

What you will see in the next few years will be the elimination of AP/honors/IB courses. There will be a wave of citizens claiming that remedial double period classes should be offered instead, so that the disadvantaged (who don't attend classes regularly) will succeed. The students who would have taken high level courses will be told to grad early.

Anonymous said...

We just pulled our gifted daughter from a Montgomery County public school for this very reason. Being backed into spending significant amounts on a private school is an extremely unfortunate use of our tax dollars.

Anonymous said...

Proficient means that students have demonstrated mastery of the material so if they have shown that they fully understand the concept, they would be proficient.

The "I" grade is very hard, as there is a wide range at this "score." An "N" would be students who do not understand the concept at all.

This system is VERY frustrating for the teachers especially. We do not get guidance from the County on how to provide ES opportunities for all assessments. How do I provide an ES opportunity for students who are mastering basic addition or subtraction facts???

Some schools are giving ES to students who get 100% while others are only grading something as ES if the students have been able to apply what they have learned to make connections that we have not yet taught in the classroom. Believe me, if you are frustrated as parents, imagine how the teachers feel!