NYC: Cheating or sympathy?

“Scores on English Regents exams for high schoolers plummeted” when New York City barred teachers from grading tests given at their own school, reports the New York Daily News. Passing rates dropped at 373 out of 490 schools and the failure rate on English exams rose from 27 percent to 35 percent. That change was “not reflected in the other nine Regents subjects.”

At Harlem Renaissance High School 69% of students passed English in 2012. In 2013, only 37% passed. “Teachers helped us out a little bit. They gave us credit for trying,” said senior Morrell Christian, 19, recalling the good old days. “If you needed extra points they gave them to you. That changed when they couldn’t mark their own tests.

Evaluating essays is subjective, teachers told the Daily News. While “grade inflation was rampant,” it wasn’t cheating, they said.

“Teachers know their students. Sometimes a bad grade means the student giving you hell again next year, or him not getting a scholarship,” said one teacher at a Brooklyn school. “There’s a form of empathy coming out. Like, ‘Oh my God, there has to be another point in there! Let’s find it.’”

Many said teachers were “encouraged to grade the exams generously so more students would graduate.” That helped students, but raising graduation rates also could keep a school from closing and earn the principal a “fat bonus.”

Don’t blame measurements for cheating, writes Matt Yglesias on Vox. He’s responding to tweets by Chris Hayes, who “offers a take on the VA scandal that’s calculated to warm the hearts of America’s teachers unions,” writes Yglesias. Hayes writes:

Current VA story is a classic example how metrics ordered from above often just lead to books being cooked rather than better performance . . . See juking crime stats, Atlanta standardized test cheating scandal, etc…

Yglesias wonders if  “a person who cheats in response to an incentive program the kind of person who’s going to do amazing work in the absence of an incentive program . . . If a data-based framework is imperfect, is going to a data-free one any better?”

Confessions of a grade inflater

Rebecca Schuman will give A’s or A-minuses to 20 of her 33 college students. Her lowest grade, except for total screw-ups, is  B+. Professors inflate grades to avoid whining — and bad course evaluations — from their students, she writes.

If I graded truly fairly—as in, a C means actual average work—the “customers” would do their level best to ruin my life. Granted, there exist professors whose will to power out-powers grade-gripers. There are stalwarts who remain impervious to students’ tenacious complaints, which can be so single-minded that one wonders what would happen if they had applied one-fifteenth of that focus to their coursework.

Increasingly, college faculty are adjuncts with zero job security, she writes. “Precarious faculty” are “rehired based almost solely on student evaluations—which, alas, are themselves often based on how “well” the student is doing in class.”

Adjuncts like me regularly admit to grade inflating, simply as a survival measure, but the consistency of nationwide trends means that even tenured and tenure-track faculty must be inflating grades, too. After all, a pissed-off student who goes all the way to the dean can impact their careers as well.

A return to a real grading system is impossible, Schuman writes. All those “parents of co-valedictorians” wouldn’t stand for it. On her Pan Kisses Kafka blog, she quotes some incredibly obnoxious advice on how to bully professors from Tim Ferris’ Four-Hour Work Week.

If I received anything less than an A on the first paper or non-multiple-choice in a given class, I would bring 2-3 hours of questions to the grader’s office hours and not leave until the other had answered them all or stopped out of exhaustion.

“The grader would think long and hard about ever giving me less than an A,” the bully brags.

Colleges consider exit exams

Students are used to taking tests to get into college, writes Jon Marcus on the Hechinger Report. In the future, they may need to pass college exit exams to get out with a degree. Policymakers, parents and prospective employers want proof that graduates have learned something.

“There is a groundswell from the public about whether a college degree is worth what people are paying for it,” said Stephanie Davidson, vice chancellor for academic affairs at the University System of Ohio. “People are asking for tangible demonstrations of what students know.”

In Ohio, candidates for education degrees must write a lesson plan, submit a video of their teaching and pass other tests. Accumulating credits isn’t enough.

The Wisconsin Technical College System requires graduating students to submit portfolios, research papers, test scores or other proof of what they know.

The University of Central Missouri requires students to pass the College Basic Academic Subjects Examination before they are allowed to graduate. (But the cutoff score is below “proficiency,” Marcus notes.)

“Isn’t it amazing that the newest and most brilliant idea out there is that students should achieve particular skills and prove it?” Marsha Watson, president of the Association for the Assessment of Learning in Higher Education, asked wryly. “Wow.”

Grade inflation is rampant at colleges and universities, researchers say. Forty-three percent of grades given out by college faculty are As.

Yet one-half of students about to graduate from four-year colleges and 75 percent at two-year schools fall below the “proficient” level of literacy, according to a survey by the American Institutes for Research. That means they’re unable to complete such real-world tasks as comparing credit-card offers with different interest rates or summarizing the two sides of an argument.

In a survey, a third of employers said college aren’t qualified for entry-level work.

More and more states, including Missouri, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina, have approved using student exit-test results to determine how institutions are doing —though in most cases not yet to judge individual students or decide whether or not they should be allowed to get degrees — as one of the measures on which they base continued public university funding.

Nearly 50 colleges and universities in nine more states — Connecticut, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, Missouri, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Utah — are trying to develop a way to test students, before they graduate, in written communication and quantitative literacy, though so far this is also solely for the purpose of evaluating their own programs.

Developing ways to measure student learning “is time-consuming, complicated and expensive,” writes Marcus. It’s also deeply threatening to colleges and universities.

A few colleges now report learning outcomes for their graduates.

Post-college tests could help job seekers

Post-college tests, such as the CLA+, could help non-elite college graduates prove their competence to potential employers.  Grade inflation has eroded the signaling value of a college degree.

How to get an A+ at Harvard

The most frequently award grade at Harvard is an A, reports The Harvard Crimson. The median grade is an A-, according to Dean of Undergraduate Education Jay M. Harris.

Harvard’s grading rubric was leaked to the New York Times.  (It’s possible this is a parody.)

“The A+ grade is used only in very rare instances for the recognition of truly exceptional achievement,” the dean tells faculty.

For example: A term paper receiving the A+ is virtually indistinguishable from the work of a professional, both in its choice of paper stock and its font. The student’s command of the topic is expert, or at the very least intermediate, or beginner. Nearly every single word in the paper is spelled correctly; those that are not can be reasoned out phonetically within minutes. Content from Wikipedia is integrated with precision. The paper contains few, if any, death threats.

A few things can disqualify an otherwise worthy paper from this exceptional honor: 1) Plagiarism, unless committed with extraordinary reluctance. 2) The paper has been doused in blood or another liquid, unless dousing was requested by the instructor. 3) The paper was submitted late (with reasonable leeway — but certainly by no more than one or two years).

. . . Finally, the A+ grade is awarded to all collages, dioramas and other art projects.

For students who haven’t committed assault, the lowest grade is an A-.

The A– grade is awarded to work that, while very good, is nevertheless diminished by a significant flaw that cannot be completely overlooked. For example, a final examination receiving the A– might be impeccable, except for having been left blank. Or the student filled in the test, but did so according to no discernible pattern, while screaming like a maniac. An A– term paper might offer an original analysis of a complex topic, but exist only within the imagination of the instructor or the student, or, in some rare instances, both.

Grade inflation has been an issue at Harvard — and elsewhere — for 20 years.

Core to kids: You’re not so smart

At an Albany middle school, angry parents told New York Commissioner of Education John King what they thought of the new Common Core standards, writes Marc Tucker on Ed Week‘s Top Performers blog.

Kathryn Biel described her fourth-grade son’s response when he came home from Forts Ferry Elementary School in the North Colonie school district.  “New York State thinks we’re stupid.  We did not pass the test,” Biel said recounting his frustration and loss of self-esteem.  Deirdre Kelly, whose children attend Albany School of Humanities, said she is opting her children out of the testing and will urge other parents to take the same action.  “It hurts them. They go home feeling bad,” said Kathy Neuffer, a teacher at Greenville Central School District in Greene County.  “The new curriculum is not enjoyable,” said Reeve Churchill, age 13, an eighth-grade student at Myers Middle School.

U.S. parents and students expect school to be easy and fun, writes Tucker. “We are reaping what we’ve sown.”

Over the last 20 years or so, the reading grade level of upper division high school textbooks has fallen from 11th and 12th grade to 8th and 9th grade.  We have seen widespread grade inflation in our high schools.  When our children get to college they can expect more of the same.  At many, perhaps most institutions, B+ is, in effect, the lowest passing grade, and, in many institutions, college administrators effectively prevent college instructors from giving grades lower than that except in rare cases.  The record shows that our colleges are providing fewer and fewer hours of instruction with every passing year and students are spending less and less time studying.  But they still get the same degrees.

. . . Consistently given higher and higher grades for ever-more-mediocre work, our students have an inflated sense of their academic prowess.

“It feels a lot like the housing market before the market crashed and brought on the Great Recession,” writes Tucker.

In Asia, especially in Korea, parents push their children to work hard in school, he writes. Standards are rising. Students expect they’ll need to work hard to get ahead.

The Common Core is our best chance to face reality, Tucker concludes.

Responding to the challenge is going to require both students and teachers to work a lot harder.  It may not be fun.  Maybe New York State does not think you are so smart because you have not demonstrated that you know and can do what millions of kids in other countries know and can do at your age.  Maybe it’s time to do something about that instead of reflexively doing what we have always done—lowering the standards, once again.

Comments?

Gove: Stop lying to kids

“Lying to children” is a crime, said Michael Gove, Britain’s education secretary, at the National Summit for Excellence in Education in Boston. Children are being “told they’re ready for college, a job or the military” when they’re not, he said.

He compared inflated exam grades on Britain’s graduation exams to Soviet tractor production propaganda, notes the Guardian.

“For years, ministers in previous governments looked at the way more and more people were getting GCSEs and they congratulated themselves, like Soviet economics ministers on the growth in statistics,” Gove (said) . . .

Slipping into a mock Russian accent and syntax, Gove said: “Look in Russia, thousands more get GCSEs. Surely now we are education powerhouse?”

Instead, he told the audience in Boston, “the truth is that we were lying to children” by telling them they would be able to go to university or find skilled work.

“Employers said: ‘You have a piece of paper that says it, you’re qualified in English and mathematics. But you can’t write a business letter, you can’t do basic arithmetic required to work in this store or on this shop floor.’

Both Britain and the U.S. are “houses divided by inequality and lack of opportunity,” Gove said. Access to the best universities in schools is “rationed and restricted, increasingly, to those who live in upscale neighbourhoods, have parents who have access to connections, and are supported by stable families.”

Children without those advantages need “a great school with great teachers,” but many won’t have that chance, Gove said. They’ll never reach their full potential.

Born to an unwed mother, Gove could have been “robbed of opportnity,” if he hadn’t been adopted, he said. Instead, he was raised by parents who made sure he attended excellent schools.

In the name of equity, Gove strongly endorsed Common Core standards, high expectations for all students,  testing (“tests are liberating!”) and competition.

Algebra II isn’t what it used to be

Passing Algebra II no longer shows mastery of algebra or preparation for college math, concludes a new Brown Center report, The Algebra Imperative.

“Pushing students to take more advanced coursework has been a mainstay of American school reform for several decades,” writes researcher Tom Loveless.

In 1986, less than half of white 17 year-olds and less than a third of blacks and Hispanics had completed Algebra II. That’s up to 79 percent for whites and 69 percent of black and Hispanic students.

But “getting more students to take higher level math courses may be a hollow victory,” Loveless writes.  “As enrollments boomed, test scores went down.”  

Figure 1. NAEP Math, 17 Year-Olds who have Completed Second Year Algebra (1986-2012)

“More and more unprepared students are being pushed into advanced math in middle school,” Loveless writes. In some cases, eighth graders with second- and third-grade math skills are placed in algebra classes.

A study out of California found that marginal math students who spent one more year before tackling Algebra I were 69% more likely to pass the algebra end of course exam in 9th grade than ninth grade peers who were taking the course for the second time after failing the algebra test in 8th grade.

. . . A study of Charlotte-Mecklenburg students by Clotfelter, Ladd, and Vigdor found that low achievers who took 8th grade algebra experienced negative long term effects, including lower pass rates in Geometry and Algebra II.

It’s not just algebra either. “There is very little truth in labeling for high school Algebra I and Geometry courses,” Jack Buckley, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, told Education Week.

Why college costs so much

Growing federal subsidies have inflated the cost of college, economist Richard Vedder tells the Wall Street Journal.  “It gives every incentive and every opportunity for colleges to raise their fees.”

Colleges build luxury dorms and recreation centers, says Vedder, an Ohio University professor and director of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity. They hire “administrators to manage their bloated bureaucracies and proliferating multicultural programs.”

“Every college today practically has a secretary of state, a vice provost for international studies, a zillion public relations specialists,” Mr. Vedder says. “My university has a sustainability coordinator whose main message, as far as I can tell, is to go out and tell people to buy food grown locally. . . . Why? What’s bad about tomatoes from Pennsylvania as opposed to Ohio?”

Federal spending hasn’t made college more accessible for low-income students or improved graduation rates, says Vedder. Only 7 percent of recent graduates come from the bottom-income quartile compared with 12 percent in 1970 when federal aid was scarce.

President Obama’s proposal to tie federal aid to graduation rates, and other performance metrics, will spur grade inflation, Vedder predicts.

“I can tell you right now, having taught at universities forever, that universities will do everything they can to get students to graduate,” he chuckles. “If you think we have grade inflation now, you ought to think what will happen. If you breathe into a mirror and it fogs up, you’ll get an A.”

Online education could reduce costs, says Vedder, but don’t expect the government to take the lead.

“First of all, the Department of Education, to use K-12 as an example, has been littered with demonstration projects, innovation projects, proposals for new ways to do things for decades. And what has come out? Are American students learning any more today than a generation ago? Are they doing so at lower cost than a generation ago? No.”

Government can help by getting out of the way, Vedder says.

Many professors are “disappointed” by President Obama’s higher ed plan, reports Inside Higher Ed.

. . . the plan focuses on certain measurable student outcomes – such as graduation rates – but would do little to ensure actual student learning.

Some called it a No Child Left Behind for higher education.

Linking student aid to graduation rates and earnings would encourage colleges to reject disadvantaged students and humanities majors with low earning potential, writes Tyler Cowen on Marginal Revolution.

From high school A’s to college F’s

Kashawn Campbell, a straight A student at an inner-city Los Angeles high school, went to Berkeley with a great attitude, a great work ethic, lots of “grit” — and weak reading and writing skills, reports the Los Angeles Times.

Raised by a single mother who works as a security guard, Campbell grew up with little exposure to the world outside his neighborhood other than watching Jeopardy. Although Berkeley felt like a “different world,” he embraced it enthusiastically.

He filled his dorm room with Cal posters, and wore clothes emblazoned with the school’s name. Each morning the gawky, bone-thin teen energetically reminded his dorm mates to “have a Caltastic day!”

But he was shocked by the academic expectations.

At Jefferson, a long essay took a page and perfect grades came after an hour of study a night.

At Cal, he was among the hardest workers in the dorm, but he could barely keep afloat.

Seeking help, he went at least once a week to the office of his writing instructor, Verda Delp.

The more she saw him, the more she worried. His writing often didn’t make sense. He struggled to comprehend the readings for her class and think critically about the text.

“It took awhile for him to understand there was a problem,” Delp said. “He could not believe that he needed more skills. He would revise his papers and each time he would turn his work back in having complicated it. The paper would be full of words he thought were academic, writing the way he thought a college student should write, using big words he didn’t have command of.”

Campbell chose to live with other black first-year students in the African-American Theme Program, two floors in a dorm. He became close friends with roommate Spencer Simpson, who was earning A’s in challenging classes at Berkeley.

Like Campbell, Simpson had been raised by a single mother in a tough neighborhood and earned straight A’s at low-performing schools. Both were nerds who “didn’t try to act tough” and were “shy around girls.” But there were differences.

Spencer’s mother, a medical administrator, had graduated from UCLA and exposed her only child to art, politics, literature and the world beyond Inglewood. If a bookstore was going out of business, she’d drive Spencer to the closeout sale and they would buy discounted novels. She pushed him to participate in a mostly white Boy Scout troop in Westchester.

To Spencer, Berkeley was the first place he could feel fully comfortable being intellectual and black, the first place he could openly admit he liked folk music and punk rock.

Campbell coped with depression, kept working, joined study groups and — with an A in African American Studies — raised his GPA above 2.0. But he got an incomplete in the writing class on his second try. He’ll be back for a second year.