Academia: Grade Inflation

Academia Series:
Part One
Part Two

In the world of business economics, inflation is defined as a general increase in the cost of goods and/or services. In education, grade inflation is the general rise in the expected standard grade level of students, which is accompanied by an uneven difficulty in achieving said expectations.

Everyone is familiar with the standard letter grade system in most American high schools. A through F (excluding E), these grades are supposed to gauge the student’s performance in class, which is usually derived from a combination of factors such as attendance, in-class focus and participation, homework, and test scores.

Now, not too long ago, straight-A students were part of the rare elite, the best-of-the-best valedictorians who seemed to know everything anyone could ever need to. This is because C was actually considered “average”. It was the baseline, the starting point. A C was what you used to get when you did an okay job – something that every student should, with only a little effort, be able to achieve. B was above-average. They tried a little bit harder, they studied longer, but a B was a good grade. Bright students were B averages. An A was “exceeding expectations”. “A” students went the extra mile. They aced most of the tests, they turned in all the homework, they were early to class every day. It took effort to get an A in some classes.

These days, however, parents are constantly expecting more from their kids. Now, a C is a “bad” grade. You’re not trying hard enough. You can do better. B’s have become the new average, though many parents still consider it to be barely “acceptable”. Now, A is the goal, and often the expectation.

In some classes, it has become easier to get an A. If you show up on time, you turn in all the assignments, and you study for the tests, it’s expected that you’ll get an A. Many teachers now grade homework based on if you tried, even if you didn’t get all the questions right, leading to an easier grading system. Other teachers provide lots of extra credit and easy opportunities, knowing that many of the students want and expect an A. Students will sometimes freak out if they are not getting an A.

Other teachers, however, do not buy in to grade inflation. Shindledecker, the amazing Biology teacher who was mentioned before, believed that a B or a C grade was still good, that it was a heartfelt effort on the part of the student. When we took his tests, he felt that all students should feel challenged by the test, so I cannot recall a single test where even one student got 100%. He said, “If you get 100% on everything, you shouldn’t be in this class.” There were even questions that he would get wrong on his own tests. So the tests were difficult, the homework was involved and required actual thought. If half the class only got a C, he felt that was as it should be. It shouldn’t be easy to get an A, because then it robs from those who actually try hard to do so.

So where does that leave us students? What effect does it have on the teachers? If everyone knows about this whole inflation thing, it can’t be a big deal, right?

Wrong.

Not everyone fully “gets” the concept of grade inflation, and that while some classes will grant you an A for sitting down and not speaking, other classes make it far more difficult. So if a student tries hard but still struggles, perhaps because an A is reaching beyond their ability, they get a “low” grade of a B or C.

Which is better for the student: To try hard and to struggle and to push yourself, and only get a C, or to slack off in an easy class and get a free A without learning anything?

Parent’s don’t always care, though, what experiences matter and what builds character. They just want the grades. So when a pressured student is falling behind, they freak out, and they talk to the teacher. Often it dissolves into “Please give me an A, if you don’t my parents will be really mad at me and they won’t get me the car they were gonna give me for graduation.” So teachers feel the pressure, too.

To put myself in the situation: I am in AP Calculus. I’m also close to failing the class. Mostly due to a lack of motivation, but it could’ve legitimately been due to me struggling to understand the material. So if I had a C, or even worse, a D or an F, which are in no way acceptable by my parents, then I am led to believe that I have failed myself in some way, that I was not good enough. Yet, I tried, and certainly I must have learned something. Yet, I could just as easily have dropped out and enrolled in a Geometry or Algebra class, not learning anything because I already know it, but skating through the class and taking away an A. Clearly, another A means another success, right?

Letters are a poor indication of a student’s worth or ability. What you don’t see is how hard they tried for that grade. How long they studied, or how often they goofed off and went on a date rather than practicing their Spanish homework. No, instead expectations of students are rising, which in some ways is good but overall puts pressure on the student.

Don’t judge by grades. There is a general shift in the way colleges view grades, which gives me hope. Instead of looking just at the G.P.A, many colleges now look at what the actual classes were. How many of them. How challenging were they. It’s a positive trend that I hope continues to parents.

The trials and tribulations of a young student’s mind cannot be summarized through the use of a single letter. Grades do not tell you the journey, only the end destination; but in the words of Book, “How you get there is the worthier part.”

And everything changes
And nothing is truly lost
-Neil Gaiman

Academia: AP vs IB

Thank you for your comments on my last entry, “Candidates and Classrooms”, and reading one of them mentioned the value of the AP classes. So here’s my spiel:

AP, or Advanced Placement, is indeed a very beneficial path to take during your high school career. I might have considered taking a few of the tests, given that I am in AP Biology and AP Calculus. I was already accepted into my school of choice, and few of the AP credits were applicable, so I opted out. However, this is not to say that the average student should turn down the AP classes and tests. In fact, I would readily encourage it, if you are planning on attending an academic college. There is no denying the benefit of not having to take a college course.

However, I believe that the presence of AP tests has its downsides, too. For one, it only encourages and reinforces the “teach the test” [see Candidates and Classrooms] method of education. For another, some schools are trying to actually award a higher grade point for AP classes; essentially meaning that 4.0 is not the highest potential GPA you could get, but rather you could get higher than that if you attend the right schools. I cannot say if it was actually put into action or merely proposed, but it certainly was, at least, discussed.

It also seems that the AP curriculum and the way our education system functions are at odds with one another. At some schools, the classroom time or facilities are insufficient to provide students with the full scope of the AP coursework. Overall, the AP classes feel very rushed, very hurried, with little emphasis on how anything is useful to you other than saving money – it’s all about passing the tests. There is a lot of stress involved, heavy course load, but somehow we make it through.

Basically, AP is a money-saver, but I doubt if we’ll remember any of it in a year.

So what about this IB thing? First, does anyone know anything about it?

The International Baccalaureate Organization, or IBO, or just IB, is an internationally standardized diploma program currently in place in approximately 125 countries around the world, in over 2,000 schools. There are 6 areas of study: Foreign Language (Spanish, French, German or Japanese, student choice), Science (Chemistry or Biology), Mathematics, Economics, History, and Literature. There are also two “levels” of study: Higher Level and Standard Level. The primary difference between the two is that HL tests are a measurement of two years of learning, with SL only one. Basically, HL encompasses information from both Junior and Senior year of study, with SL primarily on the Senior year classwork. With the exception of the Foreign Language, each area is comprised of 2 test sessions, ranging from one to three hours in length. This means that we take 11 test sessions total for Full IB Diploma.

A student can, optionally, take Certificate tests. These are just the test sessions in however many areas the student chooses to take. Undergoing the full IB program also throws on 50 hours of community service (on top of 100 hours we have to do anyway).

Get all that? There will be a test at the end of the post, so take notes.

The IB tests are less widely recognized than the AP test. In some classes, say Oregon State University, full IB Diploma “Scholars” are given $2,000 scholarship, and guaranteed admission, as a sophomore. Other schools, such as the Art Institute of Portland (my destination) threw a handful of confetti into the air and said, “Congrats”, and that’s about as far as the benefits took me. They also cost an arm and a leg to take, each area over $100 a pop. So the benefit of the tests are fewer.

Unless!

If you plan on studying aboard, than the IB tests can be a big boon. See, every student in every school in every country that participates in this program learns the same curriculum and takes the same tests on the same day – possibly even at the same time. So going abroad means that it actually is important. However, not many of us are going to go to Europe for college, as much as we might like to.

Having said that, what I like about the IB program is the actual curriculum. The classes are more in-depth, and are taught in a very unique style. It’s fun, interesting, and we find ways to apply what we know to the other areas of our life. I might do a more detailed exploration of IHS (International High School) and the IB program later, so I won’t go into it deeply.

Basically, though, the IB tests have less financial/academic value than the AP tests, because they are less likely to be recognized and to allow you to waive classes, however I find that the curriculum has a much better pace. Also, while all the information you learn in IB classes are useful for the test, the test themselves have such a wide range of questions, covering the entire range of possible things you could learn in the classes, that it is slightly less “teach the test” in style. The format of papers, perhaps, is very strictly taught as IB-criteria. However, take History. A teacher might go more in-depth into, say, the Russian Revolution and Nazi Germany during their study on Single Party States, rather than Mao in China. However, the IB test will allow you to select, for instance, three questions to answer, in essay form, from a list of fifteen to twenty questions, that range from Mao, to Castro, to Stalin. So instead of the classes teaching you what will be on the exam, the exams are meant to test you on something you will be taught.

Thus are the choices we make. Neither one is easy – but both are rewarding in their own ways.


And everything changes
And nothing is truly lost
-Neil Gaiman

Academia: No Child Left Behind

Hello, readers!

It seems that I have neglected my promise of a weekly update. I recently asked our wonderful host for some ideas of topics that I might be able to comment on. I am only 18 years old, and never had much of a mind for politics, so most of the discussions here go right over my head.

However, there is one that I might be very qualified to reflect on. Education.

Bush has been in office eight long years now, (Eight. Christ. That still scares me.) which puts his first time in office when I was about 10 years old. That’s early elementary school, which means that I have no real recollection of what education is like without Bush in office. So it was at first difficult to figure out how to comment on something for which I have no real frame of reference, but I knew that I have always heard of the NCLB, or No Child Left Behind act, one of Bush’s little legacies he bestowed upon us lucky adolescents. So I took a few key ideas from that act and thought I’d share my thoughts.

Teacher Quality

One of the first things I came across was the idea of “Teacher Quality”. It required basically three things: a teaching license, subject expertise, and a bachelor’s degree. While certainly I agree that teacher’s should not be ignorant fuckwits who don’t actually know what they’re talking about, I find these criteria are not particularly useful in accomplishing that. Subject expertise I would say does contribute to a teacher’s ability, however with the emphasis on “teaching to the test” [see below] it is difficult to define what is expertise. Still, this doesn’t help figure out what makes a teacher a good one.

The inherit problem here is that not everyone agrees what should be taught, and how to teach it. There are paradoxical problems in education about what we “need” to know. For example, in my Junior year literature class, we had this teacher named Stephenson. Poor woman, having to teach my class. Now, she was a perfectly intelligent human being, but here’s a quick preview on our education:

The first day of class we read an article that told us that there are more than one “right” answer. Basically that any given situation could be interpreted various ways, that different viewpoints and perspectives will provide different ideas of what is “right”, and they are all equally valid. Yet, when we try to analyze events in such novels as Huck Finn or A Scarlet Letter, we were obviously being steered towards the correct interpretation. The problem was that according to Stephenson, there were only three possible correct meanings behind any given metaphor:

Life
Death
God/Jesus

Oh, and phallic symbols.

While it was fun to figure out how every character in Finn fits into these categories, it’s also troublesome when you are told that your opinion, your subjective interpretation is wrong.

Poor woman. We tormented her so much in class in so many ways; at one point, a student rode into class on top of a book cart, crashed into a desk and fell over in a heap. The same student would occasionally walk into class without pants. We would pass around a Spark Notes book before a test. I, meanwhile, sat in my corner and read and doodled and BS’ed my way through the tests. She ended up moving to England the last month of the school year, dumping a substitute on us. She hasn’t come back yet.

So trying to coerce your students into telling them what you want is not a sign of good teaching. However, it’s not always the teachers, its how they are told to teach, which brings me to the next point.

Teaching to a Test

In school, homework is pretty typical in most science, literature, or social studies classes. You are given some sort of comprehension assignment, usually reading, and are given a worksheet, which is usually just fill-in-the-blanks copies of said assignment. It’s a basic process of taking in the information, storing it long enough to fill in on the dotted line, and forget it. While obviously certain aspects of class are slightly more useful or engaging, this works not only for the microscope assignments but the macro-scope goal of education: score well.

Education’s entire goal is to score well on a test so that you can get into a better college. Really, that is what high school comes down to. It’s all about teaching you what is going to be on the test. If it’s not on the test, it doesn’t get taught.

Another personal example:

I am just finishing up my AP/IB Biology II class. In that, the teacher rushes through a full year college-level course, switching between a bird’s eye view of “This General Concept Might Be On The Test” to a very close inspection of “This Specific Section Will Be On The Test.” Some sections we pass over entirely if it’s not likely to be on the test, and we don’t stop long enough in any of the sections to internalize the information in order to be useful for any period of time longer than the end of the testing period. Even then, with all the days off and vacations they ambush us with, we never have enough time to get all the information anyway. One 50 minute class (usually with anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes of actual learning, due to goofing off, homework questions, and the fact we never start on time) is NOT enough time in a day to learn anything.

It’s far too often that I hear a teacher say, “We’re skipping this section because you don’t need it for the AP test”.

The most rewarding science class I have ever taken was my Sophomore year Biology I class. The teacher, an amazing man with the name “Shindledecker”, taught us how to think about biology. He’d talk with us all period long about what we’re learning, showing us different ways to approach it, how it applies to our life, and tips on how to remember them. Not memorize them for a test, but how to actually make the mental connections between what we learn in class and what we learn in life, in order to apply this knowledge in a useful way. I might not be able to give you the scientific definition of the function of the Endoplasmic Reticulum of a cell, but I know that it’s basically the “highway of the cell”, which conceptually is far more useful than knowing the jargon. One day, we walked into class and on the board was the word “Salmon” circled. A few lines were connected to it, such as “dams”, “bears”, and “fishermen”. Then we spent the entire period making connections between salmon and what it directly influences, and what those impacts would have on other factors, and so on and so forth.

However, the advanced classes, the classes in which you have the most potential to learn the most and apply it to life, are the classes which are forced to do well on tests. Thus, they must teach to the test.

See, because of NCLB, public schools only get their federal funding if they cooperate by conducting some kind of test on all students in the state as a method of measurement of educational progress. Almost all schools take the cheapest route; multiple-choice standardized tests. So they are forced to educate the students according to what these tests are on.

Now, this isn’t all bad. Reading comprehension levels have increased, and the test scores themselves have gone up, if that means anything, though the scores are a pretty hollow victory considering what we’re giving up.

However, NCLB opens up options for schools to “play” the system, such as giving the students “practice” exams, which are usually just last year’s tests, to prepare us for the upcoming exam. The focus is entirely on doing well on the tests. It’s quite ridiculous, really.

Restriction of Classes

No, not social classes. Because of the trends in education, non-core subject classes have been cut down ever year. My school used to offer all kinds of woodshop-type classes. We used to offer Russian as a language. While my school is particularly well off and still has many non-core classes, those classes as a whole have been reduced across the board. Focus on tests means that the students and staff are pushed towards math, reading, and the sciences, with a very low emphasis on arts, physical education, and similar courses.

This limits the curriculum. Let’s borrow from every high schooler’s friend, WikiPedia:

“Schools are required to use “scientifically based research” strategies in the classroom and for professional development of staff. Research meeting this label, which includes only a small portion of the total research conducted in the field of education and related fields, must involve large quantitative studies using control groups as opposed to partially or entirely qualitative or ethnographic studies, research methodologies which may suggest different teaching and professional development strategies but that do not result in evidence demonstrating efficacy”

Oh yeah, and there’s one of my personal favorite little quirks of the NCLB:

NCLB (In section 9528) requires public secondary schools to provide military recruiters the same access to facilities as a school provides to higher education institution recruiters. Schools are also required to provide contact information for every student to the military if requested.

Then of course, NCLB also wants all, and I mean ALL, as in 100% of students, to perform on the same level in the areas of math and reading. It’s a lofty goal, but not one that I think we should be striving for. Students are too individual, each with their own ways of learning, to expect everyone to be on the same level as everyone else. It limits those who are advanced, and it pressures and punishes those who are behind.

I’ve gone on for long enough. There are other issues with education today, but it can be summed up thusly:

Modern American education is too centered on learning specific core subjects for the purpose of high performance on standardized tests in order to prove “educational progress”, neglecting the individual needs of many students, and not teaching us the skills and imparting the knowledge that will make an actual difference on our lives.

Bush is leaving office. I don’t know what will happen to education. Not everything is bad, of course, but if I could ask for a few changes with our new leader, it would be that education focuses less on test scores, possibly removing standardized testing for the purposes of federal financing and the goals outlined by NCLB completely.

Later, I’ll comment more specifically on some of these topics. Including:

-Should teachers be paid according to a “merit pay” system?
-What should we actually teach our children?
-The role of technology in school
-Grade inflation
-Social pressures and influences in school

I am a Senior in high school, graduating on June 14th, this year. I have about three weeks left of school, so I will be reflecting a lot about my time in high school. 4 years, 32 classes. I got a lot to write about, so you’ll be hearing from me again.


And everything changes
And nothing is truly lost.
-Neil Gaiman