23 March 2009

March Grading Roundup

It's that time again! Time to look at the bits and pieces about grading that have accumulated in my Reader account over the past few weeks. Ready?

Up first, is my favourite project-du-jour to watch: Cash for Grades. The WaPo had a recent update on the program in DC. Cash Incentives Create Competition: Payment Program is a Source of Pride, Shame for DC Schools looks at the various impacts this program is having on kids and families. I can't say that I'm particularly impressed so far. "The D.C. students earn cash based on behavior, attendance and three other criteria. Many schools, including Hart, pay students for wearing uniforms, completing homework and getting good grades." Okay, so the program is not necessarily about rewarding grades (although that can be part of it), but is really more targeted at academic behaviors. Most of the students profiled in the article are getting a portion of the potential $100 monthly payday just by doing the things we would expect: showing up to school ready to learn. Many of their reactions to the checks, however are unexpected, such as dripping water onto them until the paper falls apart or outright ripping them up. There is clearly a disconnect between what the "reward" means to those to give it and those who receive it.

But what about their grades?

"In some ways, the checks are like alternative report cards. But Woods said he hasn't seen grades improve noticeably. D'Angelo still gets A's and B's, higher than his brother and sister, who tell of getting C's and D's." In fact, even the A student profiled in the article was getting A's before the program. Cash for grades doesn't seem to make a difference in the short term. Long term results are some time away, of course, but I really don't anticipate that there will be anything positive to report. You might be able to buy compliance to put on a uniform and show up at the schoolhouse door...the promise of money might even buy filling in a worksheet...but engaging with the material and learning? Not going to happen.

Via Joanne Jacobs, there is continuing concern about grade inflation. My ideas about whether or not grade inflation actually exists continue to change. There is an underlying assumption that there should be normal distribution of grades. Does such a utopian classroom model exist (at least without manipulating it)? Not even in Lake Wobegon do we approximate "normal." In my research on grading, I'm come across two studies that touch on these ideas. In the first (Determining Grade Boundaries), someone looked at how professors tend to try to manipulate the distribution of grades in classes. For example, they give the first test---the results of which show that 60% of the students failed. The test was "hard"...so next time, the prof makes the test "easy" in order to adjust the distribution. And so on and so on. The simple truth is that no one ever gets a nice bell curve out of that. The various performances of students don't necessarily fit our rigid idea of percentages. The other article, An Unintended Impact of One Grading Practice, is even more relevant in this situation. Let's say that you have a group of high school freshman...some of whom do poorly and drop out of school. Once the earners of D's and F's are gone, what happens? Ah...teachers readjust expectations for those who are left, and a new crop of "low" students are identified. If they drop, the cycle repeats. The article doesn't follow these kids to colleges, but I can't help but wonder if what we think is "grade inflation" is really some variation on all of these adjustments. Meanwhile, who cares? If every student in a class learns the material to standard, shouldn't they all get A's? Why do we even pay attention to bell curve conformity?

Is there something else out there on grading that you've seen whilst prowling the interwebs? Drop me a comment.

1 comment:

Conn McQuinn said...

I have another issue about "grade inflation." When I was accepted into the UW in 1974, I had a high school GPA of 3.07. Now students need an average of a 3.7 or above to have a serious chance of acceptance. If college is that much more competitive to get into, should it be surprising that average college grades are increasing?

And of course, your closing comment is dead on. The major disconnect we have between K-12 and higher ed now is the concept of competency-based education. The idea of forcing an artificial curve onto variable cohorts is nonsensical. That means an A from fall quarter of chemistry has no correlation for an A from spring quarter. What's the point?