27 July 2007

The Decider

I talk about grades off and on here. I find grading practices and how grades are used to be something interesting to ponder. For the last day or so, I've been thinking about grades as gatekeepers---and if they aren't used in that manner, who/what should The Decider be (if any) about what classes students are allowed to take?

So here's the problem which generated my recent round of wondering: too many kids are failing chemistry at one of the area schools. The solution? Heavily weed out kids who signed up this spring (for next fall's class) based on their previous grades...and then weed again in the fall based on scores from two tests. I have to say that this kind of thinking really sets my teeth on edge, but I bit my tongue during the conversation because I felt like I needed to think about my reaction a bit more. I don't like the idea of using grades as gatekeepers, because the grades reported for incoming students don't tell you anything more than just a letter. Does the letter represent a kid who attended every day? Frequently "participated"? A kid who knows the material, but handed in all his/her work late and therefore received a C? Is this a kid who is good at memorization and could ace the tests without any sort of real learning? Or, is this a student who really does or does not understand the material? There is no way to tell...and yet if you're going to use this magic letter to determine who will or will not be successful in chemistry---how can you know?

My other problems with this argument are twofold. One is simply that having chemistry on a transcript is a gatekeeper in and of itself. It's something college admissions staff looks for, even if the grade isn't so hot. It means the student has chosen something challenging and rigorous---there is reason to believe that the kid could make it in college. So, in keeping kids from taking chemistry in high school, you're also making it harder for them to get into college. Secondly, the assumption is that all of the kids who are failing chemistry are doing so because it's completely their doing. I have no doubt that this argument will hold up for some of that population. Some kids may not have the facility with algebra to be successful with chemistry. Others have significant attendance issues---and aren't able to learn the material on their own. But I don't think we can paint this entire group with one brush. At some point, is it not also worthwhile to step back and look at the curriculum? Concepts taught? Instruction and assessments? Is it possible to offer some sort of support program for kids who are struggling instead of making it ohsoclear that you don't think they can do it?

I understand wanting to prevent some heartache on the part of a student who is failing miserably. I'm just not convinced that grades are the way to go in order to prevent this. So, what would be?

I'm thinking that the parents and students are the logical choices here. If a kid wants to try chemistry, then why not? Perhaps the kid has been a goof-off in the past and is making a commitment to his/her studies. Maybe there's been some family drama in the last year and now that personal lives are stabilizing, school performance will, too. Only the student can know for sure what s/he is willing to take on. It's true that they need to make an informed decision---look carefully at the pre-requisite skills and topics covered (No, you don't get to blow things up every day) and evaluate that in light of what they know about themselves. Talk to other students and parents about their experiences.

My previous Boss Lady was a champion of getting the gates off of course enrollment. These hurdles schools place in terms of grades and pre-requisite courses are one source of the achievement gap, especially in terms of our children who come from poverty. Schools need to be places that are more associated with "Yes, you can!" than "No, we don't think you can...so don't." In the end, I'm still left trying to balance all of that---the intentions of staff to place students, the needs of kids, and the role of grades. It is easy to think of extreme examples, but I'm looking for any overall gestalt here. What should the policy be about who/what is The Decider?


Anonymous said...

I have struggled with my own philosophy on this one. Foreign language teachers are often frustrated when students who did not pass (or get a C in) the previous level are sent up to the next one without the prerequisite skills to succeed. The argument: It's unfair to the students who are ready to move on, since we must spend much of our precious class time re-teaching the previous level's material to those who should have been held back. On one hand, this is a bit different from gatekeeping from a particular course, like chemistry, since it is a sequence and the student could always repeat the previous class. On the other hand, high school kids are pressured to get in those college requirements with very limited schedules. They can barely fit an elective in as it is without having to repeat one. Most 4-year universities require 2 years of foreign language for entry; some require a third for exit. So in a sense, holding back kids from the next level of foreign language is gatekeeping as well.

For me it's a question of balance. How much differentiation should be expected from the teacher? Who are we helping by allowing students to take a class for which they are not prepared? I favor a formative assessment to determine readiness and then, if the assessment shows at least some proficiency, allowing the student to at least try the next level. With sufficient classroom formative assessment the teacher can tell within 2 weeks whether the student will benefit from repeating the previous level. And it makes the student the Decider, with the expectation that he/she will be a Performer.

The Science Goddess said...

I like your idea, particularly because it would evaluate students on a case-by-case basis. I really worry about a "blanket" choice of forcing out 30+ kids without even talking to their parents or them.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

I'm on board with the idea that grades as gatekeepers are right up there with Ouija boards and casting bones. Until grades are uniformly standards based, there are too many uncontrolled factors that make them unreliable.

I'm very much in agreement with SG's post and her comments and EI's comment as well.

Here are a couple of my own:

1) When the theoretical education community shifted from content emphasis to process emphasis ("it's more important to know how to think and reason and talk and write than it is to know anything substantial to think and reason and talk and write about"), we didn't do students any big favors. Disciplined study is a rare phenomenon these days.

2) Besides bringing back the idea of disciplined (and even skilled) study back to public education, with some acknowledgment that content is crucial, perhaps we could get a little more radical in the way we handle grades. If a student does not complete a course of study, and they get no credit, what's the point of branding them as failures? I would treat the lack of success as if the course was never taken. No credit, no grade, no record.

Pretty radical, perhaps, but really, why brand kids as failures if they try harder.

To retest a student in an area that has already been tested, O'Connor recommends that we ask for assurance from the student that more has been learned. Perhaps we could do the same for students studying progressively more difficult subjects that depend on prior content knowledge. If they concluded a prior year on a marginal note, ask for evidence of improved study skills and self-discipline.

Like Michaelangelo envisioning his finished sculpture and removing the excess material of his medium to expose his art, I think an effective leader reveals great teaching in his staff, and skilled teachers expose motivation and zeal to learn in their students.

sailorman said...

If a kid wants to try chemistry, then why not?

Why not? Because chemistry, as you put it, is "something challenging and rigorous," and it is unfair to the well-prepared students to allow atrocious students into the class.

That said, I agree that grades are often an imperfect indicator. Especially last semester's grades, or older ones. Kids can change their entire academic habits over the course of a single summer; I know that I did.

Also, the major reason to deny kids access to chemistry would be a presumption that they would slow down the class and thus disadvantage all the other students. But grades are not a very accurate indicator of the degree of differentiation required for a given child. I've known plenty of smart people who do poorly in school. They are certainly not slowing down the class (though they may not be paying attention, turning in their homework, etc.)

Still, some cutoff is required. I think that there should be a variety of paths to get to the goal; absent any existing "in," the onus should be on the child to demonstrate their improvement. Additionally, the school should provide easily available metrics which the child can use for testing.

That would mean that there could be multiple 'tracks' into chemistry:
1) Good grades in the year(s) preceding chemistry. (predictably good students.)

2) Bad grades, BUT excellent test scores on PSAT, state tests, etc., AND a teacher assessment that they don't slow down the classes.(Possibly good students known to have ability, and known not to drag down the group.)

3) Bad grades, bad test scores BUT willingness and ability to study for independently, take, and do well on some teacher-designed science-ish test given before the start of chemistry. No tutoring or test prep is available; it's up to the kid involved. (proving current motivation and current ability to succeed.))

If a kid can't get in with ONE of these, then they don't belong in chemistry.

Unknown said...

SG, you've raked up an issue close to my heart.

Let me start with a personal example. In Grades 11 & 12 in India students have to typically choose between the Humanities (Business Studies, Accounts, Economics, Math and English) or the Sciences (Physics, Chemistry, Biology, Math and English). The brighter students take (and are offered - their grades being gatekeepers) the Sciences, the others take Humanities.

I topped the exam in Class 10 and could have coasted into the Sciences. I opted for Humanities. In my Math Class there were 22 Science Students and one other Humanities Student. With the pure sciences demanding advanced calculus and algebra, these Science
students were way ahead of me and other Humanities kid. The teacher could not differentiate his teaching to meet student need(a Stanford grad, no less) and my grades plummeted till I had the lowest score in the class on the Grade 12 state exam.

So, I take a cue from Exhausted Intern about differentiation and say that either teachers should be trained on this or else student grouping in classes should be based on their choice of subject.

Coming to Grades as Gatekeepers:

1. As a student I believed grades should determine choice of subjects
2. As a Principal, I've loathed the idea. As Sailorman cogently it attitude (demonstrated interest) and ability to put your head down for Disciplined Study (thanks Repairman) is probably my best bet for a role as gatekeeper.

In India unfortunately, the examination system is 'cookie cutter' stuff. If you know how to
take the exam, how to cram for it, what kind of questions are asked (independent of whether you know anything about the subject at all), you will do well. So for schools in India, who are increasingly competing for student enrollment, the only gatekeeper is year-end
examination score. Not year-long grade, but exam score.

So a student who has crammed for the exam is offered the Sciences even though he may have turned papers in late, missed classes,or shudder cheated on the exam while a dedicated, interested student who does experiments at home, tinkers about in the lab but is poor at cramming notes may miss out.

Also, Why have gatekeepers at all? Their need is understandable should they be used to ensure that a student with no interest or aptitude for a subject is discouraged from taking a subject he is likely to find difficult.

But, it is not understandable when gatekeepers are used because the school has limited teaching staff/classrooms/resources/whatever. In most schools, one section or two is offered per stream when there may be many more students who are interested in taking those subjects.

So a student competent and intersted in Chemistry who has achieved a good grade may miss out
because there are those with better grades who have filled all the available places. Is it fair that this student gets to do Accounts and Economics instead?

I would encourage his school, parents and state to look into buffeting resources or moving
him to another school to ensure that he doesn't miss out.

Warm Regards,

The Red Pencil