Tuesday, February 19, 2008

"Mom? Dad? I'm sorry. I below-basic'ed math again."

Good morning, boys and girls! Today we will discuss the numerical grading system that's taking hold across my region of Pennsylvania and, I hear, is poised to sweep the nation in the years to come. The system, described at length in an article in today's edition of my local paper, replaces traditional A-F letter grades with numerical grades from 1 to 4. The grades also have associated verbal descriptions, as follows:

4 = advanced
3 = proficient
2 = basic
1 = below basic
This represents a gravitation towards so-called "standards-based learning,"* wherein students are no longer measured against each other, or even by the progress they've made since the beginning of the semester; rather, they are plainly and coldly measured against the testing standards established for, and expected from, that grade. (NOTE: For a good, albeit a two-year-old, snapshot of state-by-state educational performance and spending, click here.)

I'll give you an example that's purely my own hypothetical but, I think, is a fair one. If the standards expect Johnny to be able to read a certain section of text in 10 minutes and then answer at least 5 questions correctly, it won't matter if, at the beginning of the semester, he couldn't answer any questions correctly and by the end of the semester he answered 2 or 3 correctly. He's still sub-standard and would receive a 1 for his final reading grade. Under the old system, of course, Johnny might well have received a C "for making progress," especially if Johnny was a likable hard worker, and even more especially if Johnny's classmates were all having a tough time with reading, too. Since all subjective factors are, theoretically, being taken out of the equation, students no longer will receive good marks just for being the best of a bad bunch. (Presumably in that case, you'd end up with an entire classroom full of students receiving 1s and 2s.) At the other end of the spectrum, "It won't be as easy to get a 4 as it is to get an A," confirms one local professor who's an expert on state education standards. Students will merit 4s only when they show total mastery of the material that's expected from students at that grade level. In other words, no more teacher's pets, unless the teacher's pet also happens to be a very, very good student.

As one of the educational sources quoted in the piece puts it, summing up, "This way we know that a second-grader in one classroom and a second-grader across the hallway are being taught the same curriculum and judged on the same criteria."**

But...will we really know that? Why would a shift to a numerical grading system automatically mean that the folks in the trenches—that is, the teachers faced with a sea of sweet little blank faces—will stick to their guns and keep plodding ahead with what the kids are required to learn, instead of backing away from that commitment and just "curving" the new numbered system as well? Clearly this new grading system will depend, first and foremost, on a wholesale cultural change on the teachers' part. The student, after all, just shows up for class—or doesn't; we'll get to that in a moment—and, we can only hope and pray, tries to learn whatever is taught. But it's the teacher who will have to hold steady amid a fair amount of confusion, failure, desperation and—one must assume—parental harassment. (One even suspects that the new grading system was necessary, more than anything else, to provide teachers with a "fresh start": to help them break free of their old grading habits.)

My own feelings? If this is really going to result in greater adherence to educational standards, I'm all for it. If you read SHAM, you already know my thoughts on what the more "enlightened," student-oriented approaches to learning have done to academic performance in this country; I devote the entirety of Chapter 10 to the perils and pitfalls of self-esteem-based education. On its face, standards-based instruction appears to be a more serious-minded reaction to the ills of the past 25 years. Except, there are aspects of the new system that trouble me as well.

For example, there's a line in today's story about how a grade "will be a reflection only of students' mastery of a subject and will not be skewed by homework, behavior or attendance" [emphasis added]. Hmmm. I realize that the article is not comprehensive and may leave certain aspects of the new system uncovered. Still, the mentality quoted above says implicitly to me that students are in school to learn facts only—that the school plays no formative role in teaching kids about such things as responsibility, honesty, honor, and the like. Does it then become "OK" if a kid rarely shows up, so long as he or she aces the tests? Granted, I taught college, but I always considered classroom give-and-take a strong barometer of overall mastery of a topic. If the student is seldom there, or seldom produces homework, or even is mildly disruptive...I'm curious about how that will be handled. Do we truly want to say that these factors should have no impact on grading?

Secondly, I'm a bit concerned by the connotations of the descriptive labels attached to the numbers, which still appear euphemistic and heavily influenced by self-esteem-based protocols. "Below basic" is as bad as it gets. The entire concept of "failing" has simply been removed from the system. (There is, technically, one category beneath that, an "X," which stands for "not evaluated at this time." I wonder if teachers of kids who are having really awful semesters would be tempted to give them Xs instead of 1s....) Look, I'm a compassionate guy as well as a man who absolutely loves kids; so I'm not crazy about the idea of entire classes of underperforming students falling by the wayside, as would seem inevitable here. But are we going to have standards...or not? And are we going to enforce them...or not?

* You know, I hate to provide a Wikipedia link in explanation of a topic like this...but honestly, people, the materials put out by the educational establishment itself are so impossibly dense and convoluted that you begin to wonder whether educators may be the last people who should ever be permitted to attempt to sell this kind of reform. As a very brief and minor example, I give you, herewith, one Harry G. Tuttle's explanation of the format he uses for briefing parents on their kids' progress. Now imagine a teacher trying to communicate something like that to the growing hordes of parents for whom English is a second language!
** It is also thought that the new grading standards more naturally lend themselves to expression in traditional GPA terms
although a 3.2 in standard-based grading is NOT directly translatable to a 3.2 in today's GPA format. (Thereby adding to the overall confusion for which the educational establishment is revered.)


Anonymous said...

Good Lord! So now homework is irrelevant, i.e., you no longer have to show up, behave, OR do pretty much anything except pass a standardized exam? Which means, as I understand it, that the new role of teachers is simply prepping students to pass exams, which perforce comprise limited data, and are often composed by idiots? Oh great. So much for nuance, thought, and complexity, and here's to a new generation of human computers!

Steve Salerno said...

Well, Anon, in fairness to our esteemed educators, I'm sure there's "more to it" than just what's described in the article, and the other reading I've done on the subject. I'm fairly certain that a homicidal student will be asked to leave the classroom (or at least, to leave his 9mm with the principal during the day). And one hopes that there are other mechanisms in place to penalize students who chronically fall short of standards in areas like homework and attendance. At least I sure hope so.

But yes--if there is a main criticism that's been lodged against standards-based curricula, it's the very idea you reference: the notion of "teaching to the test," wherein educators at all levels are more or less reduced to the same function as those hired mentors who, say, specifically prepare kids for the SATs and what-not. As for nuance and complexity...I dare say those have been gone for years now, and don't even seem to be prized in many college settings, alas.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, where did you get that graph from?

Anonymous said...

I am in a masters program and I am quite shocked by the level of ignorance I see from professors. It's all about politics from what I can tell. I am not being challenged, but I will have my master's degree to go on to my PhD for sucking up and not asking questions. This was not what I expected at this level and I am going to a premier college. It would seem the educational system is preparing this children to turn off their minds the way I have done to survive in the ivory tower.

Steven Sashen said...

I remember when our elementary school changed it's grading system from A-F to something goofy like AA (above average) to NI (needs improvement).

We all knew that AA = A and NI =F and knew that putting black paint stripe on Pepe LePew did not turn him into a cat.

I also remember in high school (and I think with these two memories, I'm about at my limit of what I can dredge up from 25-35 years ago), that my physics teacher was perpetually frustrated by the fact that I would routinely sleep through his last-period class and still ace all his tests (I had a knack for physics and, as a ham radio operator, already knew most of what he was teaching). I could tell he didn't want to give me an A, but had no choice.

OH! Here's another memory. Now we're talking about college, where I took some sophomore psychology class in my freshman year... the teacher said, "If you're happy with your grade before the final, you don't have to take the final and you'll get that same grade." Well, pre-final, I had a 95%, so I passed on the final. Then he gave me a B. I complained and, I swear he said this:

"Well, freshman shouldn't get A's in this class... I'll give you a B+."

OHHHH! Back to high school. One of my gymnastics team buddies and I were asked to judge a set of junior high school meets. At the end of almost every meet, the coaches said to us, "Well, these were lower scores than we're used to, but you were 100% right about who was better than who."

Okay, what's the moral of the combined stories?

I don't know.

Maybe it's something about how grading is an art. Maybe it's something about how grading is meaningless. Maybe it's something about how, no matter what the grading system, both teachers and students will find a way to game the system, or ignore the system, or do whatever the hell they want. Maybe I'm just obliquely echoing your idea that finding a useful grading system (that is not based on "self-esteem") is a worthwhile, if potentially impossible, goal.

Or, maybe you just inspired some fleeting and entertaining memories that, for some reason, I was compelled to write.

OHHHHHHH! That reminds me of graduate school (film), where we would hear critics discussing the "choices" made by writers and directors... and then hear the writers and directors say that they didn't in any way intend what the critic suggested, or that the "choice" was made because of something totally accidental or out of their control.

(In other words, feel free to read into my post whatever meaning or moral you like.)

roger o'keeffe from nyc said...

One of your better posts, Steve. As someone who pays an inordinate percentage of his (considerable) earnings away in taxes, various portions of which go towards schools in some way, I watch what's going on in education and I want to retch. As you are, I'm all for a more rigorous approach to standards. I just hope the teachers don't wimp out in the end, because, as you suggest, then after all this retooling, we'll simply have grade inflation all over again, the only difference between it uses numbers instead of letters.

acd said...

Clearly standards are not what they ought to be. In college I knew education majors who barely (if at all) understood the concepts they were supposed to teach.

While taking a class in teaching math for elementary education, one girl said, after being presented with examples of the math concepts to be taught, "I don't get this." Incidentally, on a separate occasion, when the same girl was told, "It's $250 for each of them," she replied, "Oh my god, that's, like, $400!"

Another college-educated student who tutored third graders explained why one of her sessions did not go so well: "I, like, totally forgot long division! So now I requested not to tutor math anymore."

First of all, I personally believe that future teachers should know something about what they will be expected to teach. Secondly, how do these people get into college when they haven't even mastered elementary level concepts?

When so little is expected from our future educators, it's no wonder standards keep getting lower.

Steve Salerno said...

First of all, welcome back after a prolonged absence, acd. You raise an excellent point that does not tend to come up in these discussions as often as it should: Before we even talk about the standards expected of students, perhaps we should talk about the standards expected of their teachers. It strikes me that too many of today's young teachers "benefit" from the same flagging educational standards that we talk about here: They were just passed right on up through the system--including college--without their feet ever being held to the fire. The low collegiate standards make it increasingly easy for unqualified people to find their way into K-12 classrooms...and then the realities of life in a realm where unionism is as entrenched as in any area of modern society make it almost impossible to remove them once they're there!

I would almost think that examples such as acd cites here are "made up for effect," had I not myself spent much of the past decade in various college classrooms. English and basic writing are required courses in most colleges, and are required of virtually all people who are on an education track. I guess I can't really fault the future teachers in my class who couldn't write very well; maybe that's something you either have or you don't. But a lot of them also couldn't read very well, either, and--this is what always floored me--betrayed truly horrific "skill sets" in math. And we're not talking about calculus here; we're talking about such things as being given a series of three or four numerical grades they'd achieved during the semester --e.g. 79, 88, 91, 94--and being able to calculate their average grade. (We're talking about them not even knowing the difference between the mean and the median.)

When I was at Indiana University, a colleague of mine--appalled at the situation he saw--actually began teaching an elective, "Math for Journalism Majors." (His theory was, How can we unleash these people out into the world, where they're going to be asked to evaluate complex situations in business and society, if they can't presently do simple things like figure a tip in a restaurant?) He confided to me after a couple of semesters of teaching this course, "My God, things are so much worse than I ever imagined..."

And we wonder why our journalists, too, so often get the story wrong.

Elizabeth said...

Steve, your title is priceless. Thank you. From now on, I expect my sons to use the new terminology. Yes, they below-basiced. And, yes, again.

But, gosh, it is so much less painful and more palatable than all the permutations of the F's they usually come up with to explain their school non-efforts.

I keep staring at that graph, not sure if you made it up (for laughs). No?

As someone who does educational testing for a living and has to sit down with parents to explain their kids' results to them, I can promise you that 99% of English-speaking and well-educated parents will have no clue as to what the graph means. Same for Tuttle's "explanation." (Hilarious! In a sad and perplexing way, of course.)

The new (old) push for standardized grading is an admirable effort, but indeed one that may not be for the better, as you point out, Steve. Like the rest of the educational system, it's a quagmire littered with good intentions gone futile.

P.S. But, Acd, 250 really is like 400, with them's three digits 'n all!


Steve Salerno said...

Elizabeth, to belatedly answer your question from earlier, I actually found the graph online somewhere; clip-art.

Anonymous said...

Steve, you are correct in your cynical assumptions about the new system. I say that as a teacher in a district that adopted the "standards" formula two years ago. We all know what was supposed to happen when we implemented this, and we all know what we're supposed to do when it comes time to assign grades. But the reality is, teachers are under tremendous pressure from within their own administrations (i.e. principals in their own schools) to ensure that there's a reasonable number of 3's and 4's to offset the 1's and 2's, because otherwise it makes the school look bad and calls their own competency as a school official into question. So you could say it's the same s**t, different day, to put it bluntly.

I also have to say as a teacher, though, that I think you are painting with too broad a brush when you characterize us as falling short of the mark. I consider myself highly competent and dedicated, and the teachers I know are also very dedicated and competent. Yes, even the "new ones." That's not to say there aren't bad apples. Of course there are. The real problem is the system under which we work. Just like we see in politics, you start out with good people, then the system corrupts them.

Cal said...

I would like to play Devil's advocate here. How is the new system any different from the systems that are used in other countries? Since we always hear how students in the U.S. are so far behind in math and science compared to other countries, why shouldn't the only thing that matter is how they score on these tests? I don't have any personal experience in other countries, but my understanding is that the give-and-take between students and teachers is not an important part in many countries.

Elizabeth said...

Cal and all, I have some experience in non-US educational systems, and here, in the US, I work in the system (though independently).

I'm afraid that if we were to open a real debate here (not that this one is unreal, mind you) on American educational ills, Steve's blog could collapse and no amount of HeadOn would revive it soon.

But I would like to make a comment related to your post, Cal, even though I don't think I will answer your specific question(s). (Sorry!)

It is difficult and painful for me, as a parent and an interested professional, to criticize what I see, because I can understand and appreciate the enormous efforts and personal dedication of educators I meet.

One thing, however, that strikes an "outside insider" like myself, who can compare American educational system to some of its equivalents elsewhere, is a great inequality within it. I do not think we can bring about any reasonable educational reform without addressing this issue.

There is a glaring disparity of educational expectations and opportunities within the system, a disparity that mirrors economic inequalities in the US, despite all the money that is (reportedly) given to public education.

I would say that any educational system is only as good as the society that has created it. Whether we want it or not, any and all problems in the society-at-large are going to be reflected in its education. (An aside here, not at all gratuitously facetious -- far from it, actually:
we do live in a country whose president asks whether "our children is learning.")

There are no easy answers, at least I do not see them, though we could argue specific points. But, in my view, re-vamping grading standards, etc. is only a palliative measure; it makes us believe that we are doing something to improve the situation without really changing it.

mikecane2008 said...

>>>Does it then become "OK" if a kid rarely shows up, so long as he or she aces the tests?

Having never set foot into an Ivy League school, I was shocked by learning it was indeed possible to do just that!

Elizabeth Wurtzel in "Prozac Nation" (the book) wrote about hardly ever attending classes at Harvard. She has written some brilliant (though annoying narcissitic) books.

And in "A Beautiful Mind" (movie), John Nash didn't attend classes at Princeton, in pursuit of his breakthrough (game theory; The Nash Equilibrium). He got a Nobel Prize.

Of course these are the rare exceptions.

I'm still scarred by the abysmal grades I got in math. I believe in a Math Gene. For I lack it!

Call me SUB-basic in that skill!

Steve Salerno said...

Mike, you're right, re "the exceptions." That reminds me of the people (including some of the "empowerment" gurus) who argue that you don't need to go to college, because, after all, "Bill Gates didn't!" Yeah, OK, but let's take a survey of all the people who dropped out of college and see how many of them are just of muddling along in life as opposed to how many of them are multi-billion-dollar software impresarios. I'm thinking there are fewer of the latter.

Anonymous said...

I would argue that a college education is needed for most financially advantagous jobs in the U.S. Just getting a high school education would be hard to compete in most fields. Bill Gates is the exception and not the rule. Masters degrees and PhDs are popping up a lot more than twenty years ago too. At one time, a Masters degree or MBA meant you had to show some apitude, but that is not so much the case anymore unless it is in a hard science. A lot of universities are making money off Masters programs and PhDs. I have never gone to a public school and don't send my children to one either so I cannot really comment on public schools.