Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Grade Inflation: How "50%" Is the New "70%"

If you are as wise as I am (note: my generation was the one that grew up without access to mobile technology, internet, or... rechargeable anything?), then you remember how things were much “harder” for us. When there was an assignment that was due in U.S. History class, we relied on the “hard drive” of the librarian that was in our midst to help us sift through different card catalogs to find relevant information for the AP Exam. As the deadline in Honors Chemistry slowly lurked around the corner, you utilized the correction ribbon on the family typewriter to help format this prized possession for your teacher to praise as if it were her first born son. School, for the most part, was more about form and function, than grades and good times.
Fast Forward to 2015 and students are inundated with new and novel ways of distraction that the most important pastime has become a time management public relations outcry: studying. What was formerly the tie that bound groups of students into libraries and living rooms has turned into the commodification of knowledge and endless pursuit of bullying that occurs when your numbers, “just are not good enough”. Oddly enough, I was lambasted at times for ruining the grading curve and this generation does not even know how to study for a quiz that didn’t come from BuzzFeed. 
Instead of completing homework, what I have seen is an abyss of students mindlessly perusing through the black hole of apps that only a part-time correctional officer would have time to enjoy. After this precious screen time that many students deserve for being able to hold a technology device, students pick up any instrument that serves as their secondary distraction before it’s time to catch the less than ideal amount of sleep before they wash, rinse, and repeat all for the next day.
One would think that these behaviors would not have an impact on student performance. Here’s why it has not become a reason for parents to even visit the school's main office:
Over the last few years some systems, both public and private schools (yes, that is correct) have retired the Gaussian/”Bell-Curve” for something new. It makes those that work hard to earn their grades deserving of every cheap metallic form of appraisal that they receive, and those who do not work hard, pass through the halls of academia with nothing more than a “thank you for coming to the party, here’s your door prize” sentiment that would make those of us who grew up in a meritocracy - cringe.
It’s called the “Square Root Bell Curve”. I must warn you that after reading this, you’ll have to find your old pre-algebra notes from 6th grade to come up with a few practice problems yourself.

Here is how it works:

Take “AddictedtoYouTube”. He takes his final exam in, [insert name of high school science class] and scores a 36. (Yes, that’s his grade, not his waist measurements for prom). You take the square root of 36 (it’s the number that multiplied by itself that gives you the product of 36), which is 6. This new number is multiplied by 10 and results in a new grade: a 60. What that means is that the student who basically spent the last 3-5 weeks sitting in class spending his time retweeting Kim Kardashian updates, did not earn a 36 in the class, but a 60. What about “Can’tPassAPCalc” student? He fails each and every AP Calculus exam. He scores a 50 on the exam and if you take the square root of 50 it’s 7 point something plus a few other numbers. You multiply 7*10 and guess what? He passed APCalculus...
Yes, this phenomena, (or atrocity, depending on your disposition, astrological sign or political affiliation), does not sit well for me. I was troubled to hear that passing students with inadequate skills happens in many classrooms. What alarmed me even more was that even standardized tests have adopted this shifting (on a downward slope) paradigm.
It’s not just grade inflation folks, it’s skills and talent inflation and what it all boils down to is deceiving a huge population of people about what is really on their curriculum vitae. Without assessing what students know, do not know, and need to know, this mainstream practice will only help those who fell through the cracks, and embarrass the rest who are considered “achievement frauds”.
I’m trying to see how this will impact our students as we attempt to surpass our global competitors but after analyzing this raw set of mathematical data I pose to you: will we even know how?

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