More Thoughts on Modern Grading

I have been fiddling around with ideas about grading again.  This always leads to flames of fire around my head, but nonetheless, I like thinking about this issue because of how much fear is involved with it in our day.  If we would think about grading a little more, we might fear it a little less.

So I ran across an article from the UK (here) that stated more students were taking “Mickey Mouse” courses in college rather than academic ones because they were not prepared for the difficult courses in university by their secondary studies.  It sounded a lot like what is going on in the U.S., with more students going for courses that translate into dollars than ones that develop them as humans.

But it made me consider again the little cycle that seems to have a stranglehold on U.S. schools.  In order to get into the best colleges, I have to take courses designed to give me an overall g.p.a. that shows I am among the elite students seeking entrance into said college.  To that, these days, means I boost my g.p.a. (which is on a 4.0 scale) by taking “honors” courses (which are working on a 5.0 scale) and as many Advanced Placement courses (which are on a 6.0 scale) as I can muster.

Now the fun begins.  If a good to great teacher (ostensibly the kind who would be appointed to teach such advanced courses) holds the line and gives grades “as they should be” then a good proportion of those students will pull a “B” or “C” and some will fail.  But this will not do.  Rather than crash their g.p.a., the students will pad their score with easy “A’s” instead, at least back in my day.  But not so today.  Now the school is pressed to put in place teachers who will “teach to the test” and get as many 3’s, 4’s and 5’s on the AP test as can be managed.  And the honors courses don’t even have such a standardized test to see if they are holding the line.

So the grades become inflated for the sake of college entrance.  Then, when they enter college, one of two things must happen.  Either remediation is used to bring the student up to where they need to be (grade inflation has guaranteed they won’t enter ready), or the course are dumbed down to the level of entering freshmen.  More and more, I see most colleges going for plan B.  Those that wish to maintain some sort of academic integrity are now moving to the third part of our game.

I spoke at length last year with a gentleman high up in a large admissions department for a major U.S. state university.  You all would know of the school immediately, if nothing else for its high profile basketball team.  He explained to me how “the game” (his term) is played.  Admissions stay about two years ahead of most school guidance departments, if they can.  Far too many parents today think college entrance is similar to when they applied (and nothing could be farther from the truth).  Knowing all about the “honors” and AP affect on student g.p.a.’s, they have long since stopped making g.p.a scores much of a factor.  College entrance exams, having been regularly dumbed down over that past years, and with so many industry’s out there to help the student boost his score, have become less important as well.  Many colleges are beginning to make entrance exams either optional or totally disregarded.

So many have moved on to personal interviews where the student applicant interviews with the college.  Now there are folks who charge north of $10K to coach students on how to interview, or write an essay.  No matter what criteria the college come up with, it takes about two years before every applying student has a large cadre of helpers available (for a price) to make sure he gets into the school he wants to attend.

So the fear that most parents are driven by: I want the highest possible g.p.a. for my kid so he can get into a great college, seems at best a mirage.  You might get everything you want and not get anything in reality.  Wall Street has been Occupied by young people totally disenchanted with playing the game.  The kicker is that when you are actually thinking about this life, and the next, it is anything but a Game.  Let’s think about this enough to get past our mirages and to some real solutions for our educational Moulin Rouge.

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