Morning Thanks

Garrison Keillor once said we'd all be better off if we all started the day by giving thanks for just one thing. I'll try.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Swan Song IV--Grading

The truth is, I didn't know another way of doing it.  When I started teaching, I'd give a test, then, in a single long line down a blank piece of tablet paper, I'd arrange all the grades, as in 98, 95, 91, 88, etc., straight down the page.  Then I'd play a math game I was taught somewhere along the line--the top 10% would get As, the next 20% Bs, the next 40% Cs.  The following 20% would be Ds, and 10% of the class would, I apologize, flunk.  That was called, I think, a curve, a bell curve.  There was about as much justice in it as there is an ordinary hangman's noose, but it's what I did.

I'm sure--I'm positive--I was never particularly militant about it.  That is, I'm sure that I fudged on the bottom, maybe on the top too.  I've got too weak of a heart to simply, quite arbitrarily, flunk 10% of my students.  I was never ruled by the bell curve.  If my students hugged the line, I'd give them the benefit of the doubt.  Who on earth or in heaven ordained that every time every teacher in North America gave a test, a priory 10% had to fail? What educational Machiavelli determined that standard to be just?  

But I did it.  However, I'm sure, even back then, I was a marshmallow.

But, my being soft-heart didn't mean that no one flunked, that there were no Ds, that there were no Cs.  It seems to me--call this the confession of a educational Nazi--that I thought it only just that the biggest chunk of my students got Cs, or average, or that few got As.  I was definitely enlisted in that grading core.  You didn't want to give things away, after all.  Who values what's free?

So yesterday, the brand new Harpers Index includes this incredible factoid:  Percentage of college grades that are As--(go on, give it a guess yourself?  Twenty percent maybe?  How about 25?--sounds reasonable since everyone knows we suffer from grade inflation).  


Here's the number:  43.

You read that right.  A whopping 43% of college grades are As.  

We're edging ever close to a time when half the grades on a gadzillion student report cards (I'm sure they're electronic these days) are As.

Now I humbly confess to being way too much of a sweetie.  I confess to getting vastly more smiley with age.  I confess to being downright embarrassed sometimes about how many of my students score well on my tests.  I'm a marshmallow.  But, good night, my stats come nowhere close to that kind of number.  

43%??????  Call me Ghengis Kahn.

The institution where I work has accumulated enough statistics to fight off a Martian invasion, it seems, and two of the most recent findings absolutely floored me--English majors (of whom there are fewer and fewer every year, it seems) score either first or second in SATs among incoming freshmen.  In our department, we got smart kids.  

You think engineers are bright?--you haven't gone out to lunch with English majors.

Really fine students go pre-med.  Okay, I'll give you that.  But sheer brilliance matriculates in English.

I'm being silly--but facts don't lie, do they?

And then there's this.  When it comes to percentage of high grades, the English Department (that's us, folks) grade lowest of any department in the college.  I'm not making this up.

I know you're bright enough to read the tea leaves here, but let me just spell it out--what the stats people declare imminently verifiable and totally true is that at Dordt College, Sioux Center, Iowa, English majors come in with ye highest IQs, yet, once here, they meet--high noon at the OK Corral--with the toughest graders.  Those smart kids meet bears--no, grizzlies--the moment they step into English classrooms.

But there's this too from the number-crunchers--our students are the best writers and readers in the school.  

There.  Maybe all the sweat and blood is worth it.

So what does all of this mean?  I don't know.  I'm really sure that I grade more easily than I did when I started teaching 40 years ago.  I am absolutely positive that I'm not alone.  I'm reasonably sure that American education--higher education--isn't what it once was, and I know there are tons of reasons for that, some of which are understandable and even worth saying aloud--as in, education used to be simply for the elite.  No more.  Thank goodness.

I'm know our students now compete in a new global environment and that, internationally, we're getting our butts kicked by all kinds of Asian countries--and even the Russians.  I played four sports in high school--and I loved almost every minute of it; but I really do believe that our culture places far, far too much importance on athletics and celebrity and other silliness, and that athletics should be--on the college level if not on the high school level--entirely separate from the schools they've come to dominate.  

Maybe most importantly, after 40 years of teaching I'm more sure than ever that the sine qua non of successful education is not the teacher, important as the great ones are; what matters most when it comes to success in education is community ethos.  America gets what it wants from its educational systems--and vastly more Americans care about their football team's blessed weight room than about what happens, day to day, in a sophomore biology or senior civics classroom.  

Is there grade inflation?  No doubt.  Is that bad?  I'm not sure.  Is American education--and higher education--going downhill?  It's just plain hard to fight with stats, and the stats say, unequivocally, yes.

Who's fault is that?  Bad teachers, sure, but a community who values a cabin up north (like me), a four-car garage, an iPad in every kid's room, and annual Sandals vacations.

Take it from Gehngis Kahn, a marshmallow.   


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