Saturday, September 19, 2009

Gimme an A... OR ELSE

A student decided to strike back at the evil meritocracy of the school board by threatening to kill and rape a teacher unless she granted an A++ to everyone in her class (of which he was part). This was certainly a new way of thinking 'outside the box' (whatever that means) and ingenuity. Unfortunately, it is also kind of a terroristic threat and kind of illegal so his extra credit idea comes to naught.

His actions are clearly wrong. There is no disputing that. Yet, we must also take a good and long look at how we have come to evaluate our students.

It seems, no, it is the case that you must get an A. B is acceptable but seen as among the 'average'. C is downright unacceptable. And if you earn a D, you might as well resign yourself to wages and job satisfaction comparable to a third world sprocket stamper or Linden Lab employee. Get an F and the best employment will be Linden Lab liaison with the residents.

And how do we ourselves label these letters? A is exceptional. B is above average. C is average. D is sub-par, and F is failure. C is average! C! C should be plopped right at the top of Mount Bell Curve. Everyone should be able to wake up in the morning, and say to themselves: I got a C. I've done well.

But that's not good enough. Everyone wants to be a genius and be 'above average'. And so it is more or less granted. To the point where we expect everyone to get an A, and anything less descends into varying degrees of intolerable. To the point where failing to do so results in one's guidance counselor pontificating upon the virtues of busting a gut vessel or else you'll regret it.

In short order, undue stress.

In high school, an acquaintance (one of those 'hey, I see you around' deals, but you don't talk much, but you stay friendly, because they're alright) broke down and cried as her GPA was murdered by a poor grasp of AP Calculus. In the end, it was busted down to a 3.3 for which she was perpetually grilled in interviews with prospective schools. Because it's just not acceptable. Not to mention that my peers (I hesitate to even call them 'acquaintances') lambasted her and frequently claimed that she was ditzy and obviously must have cheated. How could someone have had little trouble with algebra struggle with calculus? Obviously must have cheated.

Why? Should 3.3 be enough? Does that not prove enough competency of the student? No, because a good 40% of my class scored above 3.5, 15% of which managed to hit 4.0 and above. Yes, in my high school you could manage to mark above a 4.0. It should not have been possible to score above above average. Was my suburban public high school really that elite?

The key, you see, lay in something called the 'curve'. The almighty curve. If you took an honors course, your grade was boasted by 1%, AP by 1.5% or something along those lines. Thus, someone acing AP courses could manage to get a 105 or so as a final grade which could bump your GPA above 4. It was an unintended consequence of attempting to correct the fact that 'general' level courses were getting higher GPAs than the 'college prep' students.

I would personally think that such a thing would be represented on your transcript and would not need 'correcting' and 'curving'. Wouldn't a B in AP chemistry at a high school level be sufficient? No, it is not. They need higher grades, or else they can't get into college (which everyone, for some reason, aims for).

And so students demand A's. All this pressure to get A's. And whenever something is valued, some do anything it takes to get it. Which leads to cheating. And demanding it (even when undeserved). And threatening for it. Teachers, whether through pressure placed on them by their superiors or through a genuine desire to see their students attain the American dream of getting the all important stamp of approval from an accredited university, tend to cave. Which then leads to wonderful entitlement attitudes. Which causes even more desperate measures to obtain it.

And for what? An A. First to reach university, then to a job.

That's the why. Students clamoring for the almighty 4.0.

How did we come to this state of affairs? I have no idea. Probably some creep effect, where one person or institution relaxed their standards, which triggered a cascade down and resulted in what we have today. Or perhaps it just started all at once: everyone wanted to be at the top, so it became desired, and the seeming status quo.

Once upon a time, 4.0's were reserved for the exceptional. Those who really knew and understood the material. For instance, being able to calculate some derivatives might merit a C, maybe a low B, as that is the objective of the course. That is par for the course. High B's, A's, might be awarded to those intelligent enough to not only show proficiency in doing the calculation, but also able to show the how and why of getting from point A to point B and able to explain the theories and junk behind it.

At least, that is how it should be. But that's too much work, and I suppose at some point someone must have said, "Why not award high marks to everyone as long as they're able to meet the bare minimum of the objectives?"

And hey, look where we are. Students threatening their teachers. Tougher penalties enforced on cheaters in part due to increasing prevalence. And, on some occasions, the occasional bystander wondering wondering just how some of these honors students earned their grades ("you honestly do not know what an aromatic compound is?").


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