May 27, 2018

Archives for November 2011

Grades in school – are they meaningful?

I run a tutoring center and tutor students in Wake county, North Carolina.  I get students from many different schools, although they are all in the same county.  However, their courses, although identical in name and in “theory” content, vary greatly.  If the level of a course can range from easy to extremely difficult and yet we award a grade based on test scores to both classes, how is this fair to the student and how is this truly a measure of anything?  Here is an example.  I am currently working with a student taking Honors Geometry through Wake County Virtual Public Schools.  This is an online class given when the school is not able to provide instruction within the school.  In this case, the student is in a middle school that does not offer this course so he has to take this online version of the course.  There is only a virtual teacher who responds to questions that the students (currently 3) ask and it takes about 10-20 minutes before they get a response to each of their questions.  There are no in person lessons, just self teaching from online materials.  The students turn in assignments and their assessments are never looked at by a person, they are always multiple choice so that a computer can grade all their work.  In a typical “in house” Honors Geometry class, students are expected to do 2 column proofs on exams, however, since this is not possible in an online class (it can’t be graded by a computer) these types of problems aren’t given.  Proof type questions might be asked but in a multiple choice format, which is hardly the same as generating a proof from scratch.  The students still have to do some exercises with proofs but aren’t tested on these proofs and their exercises, I am told, count about 10%.  It seems the multiple choice questions are quite easy and a student who in a “in house” Honors Geometry class who might not be passing with the same level of knowledge, can score a B in this multiple choice testing format.

On the other hand, I also see a huge variation from one school to another.  For example, School A’s Honors Geometry program is so challenging that even I can get stumped on some of their questions from time to time and I have a Ph.D. in Mathematics Education, Masters in Mathematics, etc.  The level of proofs required in School A are truly much harder than I feel is appropriate, especially considering it isn’t in line with other schools and way off from the virtual school.  I tutored a student from School A who is extremely bright, knew so much about Geometry that most high school math teachers (outside of School A) who might sit down and work with this student would be very impressed with this student’s knowledge of Geometry but since he attended School A, his grade for the year was a C!  If he had been in School B, he would have gotten an A, if he had taken it online, he could have slept through the course!  School B is right now the road from School A but the same math classes – and I am not just talking about Honors Geometry but all other high school math classes  – are so much easier at School B than School A.  School B requires a much more reasonable amount of homework as well.  School A requires way too much from kids and somehow thinks that if they assign 60 problems of the same type that will make the kids smarter.  My son is 11 now and smart enough to take Honors Geometry but if he has to take it at School A, I won’t let him.  In fact, I am not sure I will sign him up for any honors math classes at School A because their math program is so out of line with what is reasonable – and if you happen to get a less than stellar teacher in the mix, then just forget it!

These grades students make determine many things for students in high school – they make up their GPA – this makes them competitive to get into colleges.  How does that C in Honors Geometry look to a school like Stanford?  They perceive the student as a poor student, when in fact, this student had he been down the road in School B, would have straight A’s in Honors and AP math classes!  What a difference in perception and yet it is the same student, the same knowledge.  All School A did was make the student get frustrated and feel like he can’t be successful in math and now this student will choose not to continue on with Honors and AP math classes that he is capable of.   I have to tell the student that it ISN’T him – I hate to put blame on outside forces with teens because it is important for teens to learn to take responsibility for their actions, however – when I work with a very bright student and watch him achieve a C (and it wasn’t for not doing assignments, etc.) – there is nothing else I can do but try and help salvage the student’s math self-esteem that School A has taken away from him.

Another example; a parent calls me – her son is failing – well almost, he barely has a D, in Algebra 2.  He is generally a B student in math.  She begins to relay the story.  The teacher, who gives math credit for whether a student uses the bathroom during class, is telling her that her son has only completed 47% of his homework.  Well, one would argue, if a student isn’t completing their homework, that is a reason for a poor grade.  However, despite the fact that she said those exact words, the truth is that he did 100% of his homework but she graded his homework and he only got 47% of his homework correct so he has a 47 homework GRADE, not that he only did 47% of his homework.  However, isn’t homework supposed to be for learning, not an assessment?  Why are we teaching a new topic, assigning homework, then grading it the NEXT day, and weighing it so heavily that it takes a student that has a B average on tests and lowers his grade to a D (almost an F) in the class?  Shouldn’t you be able to come to class the next day and say, “Ms. Teacher, I didn’t understand homework problems # and #, please go over these.”  This is how it always worked for me.  This is how I always taught.  This teacher scores the homework and weighs it so much it fails him even though his understanding on true assessments is a B.  Now when colleges see his transcript, yet again -they think this child is a D student when his knowledge of Algebra 2 clearly indicates a B level of understanding?

What are these GRADES supposed to measure?  Whether we use the bathroom?  If we could do homework the first night it was assigned?  If we can do super hard proofs when other students can get A’s in the same class for basic multiple choice questions?  How is this an accurate measure of anything?  And yet, it has an impact on what college a child gets into, if they get scholarships for college?  I remember one college professor I had, he got it right.  He gave us tests, we took them and got grades (this was in math).  Our final exam was cummulative – it tested everything for the whole class.  If we knew everything on the final, then we had proven we had mastered everything we were supposed to learn in class.  So, he said to us – IF you take the final and your final exam grade is higher than your grade would be if I factor it in at 20% (or whatever the assigned weight was), I will just give you the grade you scored on the final.  So, if our grade going into the final was a D but we got an A on the final, we got an A in the class.  Why?  It made sense … What is the purpose of a grade?  To measure your knowledge of the class content?  He didn’t care WHEN you managed to “get it” – if it took you longer but you got there by the end and could demonstrate it on the final – you proved you mastered the material in the class so your grade should REFLECT your ACTUAL knowledge at the end of the course.  It was BRILLIANT!  Dr. Kenton, you are a brilliant man and teacher!

Speaking of grades – tell me if this makes sense – Wake County schools offer higher quality points towards the weighted GPA based on Honors and AP classes.  If you take a regular class and get an A, you get 4 QP, if you take an Honors Class, you get 5 QP, but if you take an AP class, you get 6 QP.  So, why do you get 6 QP for an AP class?  Well, it makes sense because AP classes are supposed to be college level classes offered in the high school.  So, college level work should be awarded more QP than an Honors level high school class, right?  That makes sense.  However, if the student actually goes TO a college and takes a college course AT a college, the county’s policy is to award only 5 QP for an A.  So they equate an ACTUAL college class the same as an Honors level high school class – giving more weight to an AP class than an actual college class taken in college.  So I could take AP Calculus BC, get an A and get 6 QP but if I take Calculus III as a dual enrolled student the following semester while still in high school and get an A, the school will only give me 5 QP for it.  So it would LOWER my GPA and make me LESS competitive for colleges looking at my GPA and class rank.  Again, pointing out these grades are meaningless.

My final comparison is the grading scale used.  Most schools use a 10 point scale.  90-100 A, 80-89 B, and so on.  So if you are in states with this scale, and you get an 84, you would have a nice solid B.  However, Wake County decided that they wanted to make things more challenging for their students and now use a 7 point scale, so that same 84% would equate to C in Wake County schools.  Do colleges take this grading scale into consideration when looking at applicants?  These inconsistencies make the meaning behind grades useless.  When I taught college and graded, I preferred to think of grades this way – to me, an A meant Excellent Understanding, a B was Good Understanding, a C was Fair Understanding, a D was Poor Understanding, and an F was Little to No understanding.  After I computed a numerical grade for a student, I was looked at the student and said if I didn’t have any true grades and just looked at their “understanding” and had to attach a word to their understanding – how would I define it – excellent, good, fair, poor, or little to no – I wanted to make sure their numerical score matched their TRUE understanding – luckily, it did because I was very careful with each individual assessment but this was especially helpful when students were borderline and I had to choose between two letter grades.

I chose to homeschool my son for one year of high school.  It was so liberating to not worry about grades and just have him learn for the sake of learning!  Of course, we had to “make up grades” for his transcript to send off to college.  I tried to think about what he would have gotten if had taken the class in a public school.  He always got B’s in English in traditional classes, so I gave him a B in English.  Things he was passionate about and worked hard on because he just really wanted to learn and master (which he did) – those were clearly A’s.  None of that really mattered to me though, he learned what he needed to and worked really hard at what was important to him.

In closing, I think back to my undergraduate years when I was minoring in Philosophy and one thing that interested me was the concept of a grade-less school.  In the book, Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, the author wrote about a professor he had who chose not to grade his college class and instead let the students choose their grades.  It was a great read and I would encourage everyone to check it out.    I would welcome any comments on this topics.