'A' Is for Awful

Self-evaluations by Michigan schools are meaningless. Self-esteem has run amok. The Detroit News reports:

One Detroit elementary, for example, gave itself a perfect score for its facilities despite being closed in October because it started sinking into the ground.

. . . Eighty-three percent of Michigan elementary and middle schools that failed federal achievement standards for at least four years -- including schools in Detroit, Pontiac, Taylor and Utica -- gave themselves A's on self-evaluations worth a third of their overall grades, according to a Detroit News analysis of state report card data released earlier this month. The percentage is up from the previous year, when 70 percent of failing schools gave themselves the highest possible marks.

Administrators are giving themselves points for having programs to solve their school's problems -- even if the programs aren't working. Two elementary schools that earned an F in English and a D in math gave themselves an A, which raised the schools' average grade to a C. Both have been listed as failing schools for six years.

Lying to Children

John Stone of the Pacific Research Institute is dead right in this Washington Times oped: "It is a disappointment when a child performs poorly in school. It becomes a tragedy, however, when the child and his parents are not told the truth." After years of grade inflation, students who've passed all their courses are finding they can't pass basic skills tests; "B" students are stuck in remedial classes in college.

California's universities admit only the top third of high school graduates, but 37 percent are required to take remedial math and 48 percent remedial English.

Recently, researchers took a closer look at the letter grades awarded in a Florida school district. Judged by the scores students earned on the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test (FCAT), only 9 percent of the A's assigned to third-, fourth- and fifth-grade students were deserved. Of the students who performed at a D or F level on the FCAT, 17 percent had earned an A from their teacher. Many had been taught by teachers whom the study called "easy graders." On average, these teachers assigned an A to those who were in reality D or F students 32 percent of the time.

Grade inflation benefits teachers and administrators, Stone writes.  

High grades are more comfortable for everyone involved — including educators. Teachers, administrators and school districts can bolster constituent satisfaction and their public image — or they can do the opposite — depending on the grades they assign. The incentive is obvious.

Parents who are poorly educated themselves tend to believe their children's report cards are genuine. Eventually, students realize they lack the skills they need to meet their college and career goals. By then, their years of free education are over, and it may be too late to recover.

Getting Serious

High school juniors in California will have to pass the state's graduation exam to get a diploma. This Los Angeles Times' story starts with a familiar refrain: A poor girl might not achieve her dream to be a pediatrician if she can't pass the math portion of the exam. The implication is that the exam hurts the prospects of low-income minority students. But the Manual Arts High student won't make it through college, much less medical school, if she doesn't know enough math to get a 55 percent, the minimum passing score, on a four-choice multiple-choice exam covering sixth through eighth grade math skills.

The story goes on to show that the exam is forcing schools to offer tutoring and Saturday classes, so students can pass the graduation test on their second, third, fourth, fifth or sixth try. The test is motivating students to work harder to improve their math and reading skills. Teachers are paying more attention to teaching the state standards, and they're keeping track of students' progress.

Junior Adriana de la Rosa, who grew up in Guatemala and struggles with English, said she would benefit from attention to fundamentals — such as vocabulary development and reading comprehension — rather than from reading "The Odyssey" in her English class.

"That's why I'm taking the classes on Saturday because I think I need more help with my English," she said.

. . . Manual Arts teachers and administrators said they were doing all they could to make sure their students were prepared. Among other things, teachers say they closely follow the state's academic content standards on which the test is based. And school counselors met last month with incoming juniors who failed one or both parts of the test, recruiting the students for the Saturday classes.

...Los Angeles schools Supt. Roy Romer said his district's high schools were trying new approaches to better prepare students for the exit exam.

For example, he said that ninth-grade teachers are now using instruction guides that cover the tested standards, and are assessing students regularly to make sure they are learning.

What a concept!

"I think it's important to pass it, to see if you've been learning for the last [four] years," said junior Julio Sosa, who failed the math section and now gets after-school algebra tutoring twice a week. "I think I'll pass it this year."

With her hopes for medical school, (Edith) Nicolas is eager to improve her algebra skills and is signing up for Saturday classes.

If the graduation exam didn't exist, these students wouldn't be trying to learn algebra and wouldn't have Saturday classes to help them get on track for college. I just don't understand why "advocates" for disadvantaged students oppose the graduation exam.


John Lucia of Indianapolis writes:

News Flash: Unions try to discredit non-union employers. News Flash: Unions are more interested in employee salary and benefits than product quality.

Does anyone really think that teachers unions, which contain people as human and caring as the rest of us, would act any different than other unions?

Roy W. Hogue writes:

In the end, all human organizations serve themselves and the interests of their members, losing sight of everything else. That’s true for schools, especially when control rises to a level (state, federal or union) where immediate accountability for failure disappears.

Here's my prescription: Scrap the public education system above the local level. Put schools back into small local districts accountable to the voters, and most importantly, the parents.  Forbid county, state and federal governments from getting involved. Direct accountability to the people the schools serve is the only way out.

Wayne Halsey writes:

In regard to Benedict College’s grading policy, I can see effort playing some role in grading in elementary school, where you don't want students to become discouraged about trying to solve difficult problems. But by high school, let alone college, effort should have no impact on grades. You either solve the problem or you don't.

I can see the lawsuits now. Employer forced to pay workers because they tried to do the job, but couldn't.

Success is rewarded. Failure is not. Period!

Benedict College should be driven to bankruptcy due to a shortage of students paying their tuition: They can always claim that they tried to pay it, but just couldn't.

Doug Schexnayder of Vidalia, La., writes:

I just retired after six years of high school and 27 years of community college teaching. Education is no longer about character and success. It’s about student happiness. Spineless parents and administrators have dumbed it down to “keep the peace.”

The only groups having the freedom to fail under modern educational theory are teachers. National tests like the ACT were dumbed down in 1991 ("re-normed" in educationese): what once was a 17 is now a 20 for example. The SAT is adding a "subjective" writing section.

If athletics was as dumbed down as education has become the past 30+ years, it would now be "5 strikes for an out" and "7 yards for a first down."

J.C. Gallagher writes:

The ho-hum, dumbing down of the population has been going on for over 40 years.  Incompetence prevails. The last thing I want to deal with is an incompetent moron who feels good about himself. All of these “colleges” should be shut down and become primary education centers. 

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at JoanneJacobs.com. She's writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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