Monday, October 23, 2006

"Mrs. Jones, little Elsa is minimally progressing quite nicely..."

An item in my local paper this weekend talked about how the Easton Area School District, one of the largest in this region, is following the lead of numerous districts nationwide in abandoning the A-F, pass-fail grading system. Henceforth, a student's performance will be reflected on report cards in one of four categories, 1 to 4 (duh), as follows:

1. Demonstrates minimal progress toward grade-level standards.
2. Making progress toward grade-level standards.
3. Consistently demonstrates grade-level standards.
4. Consistently exceeds/extends grade-level standards.
Notice, first, the destigmatizing spin of the grading system as a whole. Apparently everything now is "progress," even when none of it is being made. (Educators steeped in this new system would probably say, upon encountering a corpse, that it "demonstrates minimal progress towards life.") One senses that a lot of thought was given to the verbal descriptions of the numerical categories, so as not to hurt anyone's feelings. After all, why does category 1 frame a student's performance in terms of "minimal progress" rather than, say, "fails to meet grade standards"? That's clearly what's happening...isn't it? The student is failing, and will not be sent along to the next grade if he continues to perform at that level. So why not say that? What this system really "demonstrates," then, is the degree to which self-esteem-based thinking—despite having been repudiated by some of its own founding voices (see SHAM chapter 10)—has been absorbed into the educational ethos and continues to shape policy. Understand, I do not advocate "purposely making kids feel bad."* I just question the wisdom of linguistic ploys that obscure meaning and/or give parents a benign way of conceiving their kids' shortcomings, especially since the whole point here, in theory, is to encourage a more rigorous, no-child-left-behind approach to learning. (If nothing else, the system is bound to cause at least a certain amount of confusion among less involved or less knowledgeable parents, who might wonder, "Is 'minimal progress' enough for Elsa to get by?" Whereas there's no mistaking the significance of a big red F...)

You see, depending on how the standards themselves were developed in each case, standards-based grading is actually supposed to signal a sweeping, top-to-bottom change in the nature of the instruction. It represents a tougher, more aggressive curriculum that makes increasing demands on students, and supposedly eliminates the educational relativism that too often has resulted in lowest-common-denominator teaching and grading. (Among other things, it normally bans grading on a curve, because students are being judged based solely on how they rank against the standards, not against each other.) Accordingly, the switch to standards-based learning, when implemented suddenly and honestly, often takes as its casualties as many as half of the students in its first few years; you tend to get a lot of kids falling into categories 1 and 2.** So again: You end up with students doing The-Grade-Formerly-Known-As-F-level work—but being told they're making some sort of "progress" towards grade standards.... Is that progress? You tell me.

* And do you really think the kids are fooled? That a kid who gets all 1s on his report card isn't going to hear about it on the school bus?
** Which is why, in some ultra-problematic school districts, the temptation is strong to implement the grading without the accompanying curriculum: Otherwise they'd have to "fail" just about everyone.


Anonymous said...

Steve, I have to admit you nailed this one, thanks for calling a spade a spade.

matt dick said...

My daughter is in second grade. I've been amazed that no report card has come home with letter grades. They do have letters actually, but they're just a way to abbreviate phrases like "Making solid progress" or something along those lines. I asked when we might see a grade out of a school giving me some idea of how she's doing, and I am told that it might be in 4th or 5th grade.

So I wait. Meanwhile, parent/teacher conferences are a source of frustration. I am not super-driven that my seven year-old be a genius, but it would be helpful for a diligent parent to be given *some* idea of how his child is doing in school. Instead I get examples of her work and a report card she was to fill out herself! I'm pleased to report that she feels she is top-rated in every category, but aside from it telling me how she feels about herself, it doesn't tell me if she's reading and doing math at the appropriate level. And I am not qualified to look at her journal entries and know if she is writing well enough. How am I supposed to know when it's time to get her extra help, or when it's time to prioritize playing outside over an extra 20 minutes of reading?

Seriously, even when I ask a direct question like, "How is her math skill?" I get a very vague answer like, "Oh she's just great." in a tone of voice which clearly indicates a breezy disinterest in ability, and a continued focus on a general, soft acceptance of all levels of progress. It's darned annoying.

And that's just the SHAM-ish complaints I have. Don't get me started on grade school science texts which refuse to use actual precision in language.


Steve Salerno said...

Matt, the situation you describe is tragically common. I have written often on educational matters, and even though you've gone through it, you'd be astonished at the lengths to which educators will go, nowadays, to AVOID giving kids and/or their parents an honest assessment of progress.

Here's a link to something I did for NRO:

Any others out there who have had similar experiences? Or who take issue with what we've said here?

matt dick said...

Higher education is a slightly different topic than grade obfuscation in lower schools -- although I am sure they are related and one informs the other, at least through the culture of academic relativism.

What's the solution to the insular and anti-free speech culture of modern universities? I've known for years we had this problem, but I am completely stumped about what to do. We need academic freedom -- in the sense that we need colleges and universities to set their own standards -- but at the same time, we need better transparency into what the process is for their setting of their own agendas.

This kind of crazy, insular, hypothesis-uber-alles culture is how we get academics for 911 truth and such -- they aren't used to testing their ideas against the real world.

Then again, perhaps it's not so distructive for most people to get this kind of forced-homogeneity of "liberalism" and hypocrisy before they graduate into the real world of function and pragmatism.

Bah. Any ideas?

a/good/lysstener said...

Steve, I see the phenomenon you are describing even to some degree in my graduate classes. In fact you pretty much have two kinds of professors nowadays: the boorish ones who make everybody else think they're wrong, and the warmy fuzzy ones who make all students think everybody is equally right! I'm not sure either style does students that much good.