Don’t grade me, bro

Erica Taicz, who just graduated from Johns Hopkins, and others want to retain “covered grades” in the first semester. From left are: Taicz; John Hughes, 20, a rising junior; Jonathan Liu, 21, who just graduated, and Kwame Alston, 20, a rising junior. Photo: Algerina Pena, Baltimore Sun

To ease pressure on new students, Johns Hopkins University hides their first-semester, first-year grades: Students know what they earned, but their transcript says only Satisfactory or Unsatisfactory (or the failed course is removed). Plans to change the decades-old policy in 2017, have distressed students, reports the Baltimore Sun.

A group of students who call their effort #ReCoverHopkins say reporting first-semester grades will cause mental-health problems.

Hopkins students experience anxiety, depression, and suicide at high rates which cannot continue to be tolerated for the sake of competitive academic performance.

Students from low-income backgrounds, first generation students, students struggling with mental health, students with disabilities, international students, and sexual assault survivors—as well as students whose experiences exist at intersections of marginalized race, gender, and sexuality—are disproportionately affected by the policy change.”

Students aren’t asking to be coddled, organizer Erica Taicz told the Baltimore Sun. “I’m paying to have a support network, academically and mentally. I can’t be expected to do well in class if I’m depressed and have anxiety.”

“What Hopkins students are actually paying for is a rigorous education and, eventually, a degree that demonstrates their intellectual competence in some area of study, responds Robby Soave on Reason.

“Having to receive letter grades is not a traumatic experience, it’s a normal one,” responds Katherine Timpf on National Review. “Any potential students who think they can’t handle it should really just go somewhere else.”

When my daughter was looking at colleges — it was awhile ago — I noticed that Johns Hopkins had a reputation for unhappy students, possibly because so many are competing to get into medical school. Apparently, it’s the anti-party school.

I don’t think hiding first-semester grades is a terrible policy — or terribly effective at sheltering students from academic pressures. A few other elite colleges do it. But, gee, is this the Intersectional Snowflake Generation?

Grading the prof: An ‘F’ for insensitivity

A group of black students at Emory are demanding that students be asked to report their professors’ “microaggressions” in course evaluations, reports the Emory Wheel. If the demands are met, students also would be asked: “Do you think that this professor fits into the vision of Emory University being a community of care for individuals of all racial, gender, ability, and class identities?”

Black students protest at Emory University in Atlanta.

Black students protest at Emory University in Atlanta.

Students’ responses “would help to ensure that there are repercussions or sanctions for racist actions performed by professors.”

(Emory is a “community of care” for people of all abilities? I thought it was a selective university for high-ability students.)

“A microaggression can be unintentional,” writes the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education’s Catherine Sevcenko. “Students don’t agree on what constitutes a microaggression. Under these conditions, “university-level teaching would simply be impossible.”

Surveying students is a lousy way to evaluate professors’ teaching, according to two new studies, reports NPR.

Student rating often are “the only method a university uses to monitor the quality of teaching,” writes Anya Kamenetz.

Fewer than half of students complete the survey form, according to An Evaluation of Course Evaluations. Very happy or very unhappy students are more likely to respond, says Philip Stark, a Berkeley statistics prof.

When results are averaged, the professor with lots of very high and very low ratings looks like the one that everyone rates “satisfactory.”

Michele Pellizzari, an economics professor at the University of Geneva in Switzerland, believes “course evaluations may … measure, and thus motivate, the opposite of good teaching,” writes Kamenetz.

In an experiment in Milan, Pellizzari measured economics students’ cognitive skills, then evaluated their professors’ teaching ability by how well students did in the next course in the sequence.

The better the professors were, as measured by their students’ grades in later classes, the lower their ratings from students.

Most students appeared to dislike tougher teachers, even if the hard work paid off in the next class. However, classes with highly skilled students gave high marks to highly skilled teachers, the study found.

“An easy-A prof may earn five stars in return for handing out good grades,” writes Kamenetz. But research suggest leniency “does the students no long-term favors.”

Sometimes, A is for alike

The Teacher's Pet
LA Johnson/NPR

Teachers overestimate the abilities of students who resemble them in personality, according to a newly published paper. They downgrade students who are different.

Teacher bias could hold students back, writes Anya Kamenetz on NPR.

This study looked at a group of 93 teachers and 294 students in eighth grade in Germany. Everyone took a short test to establish basic features of their personalities: extraversion, agreeableness and the like.

They gave the students reading and math tests too, sharing the test items with the teachers. Then they asked the teachers two questions: How good is this student compared to an average eighth grader? How well will this student do on this test?

Teachers’ judgment was linked to their personality match on the first question. However, they were more accurate in estimating the results of a specific test.

“A recent study from Israel showed that teachers gave girls lower grades on math tests when they knew their gender,” writes Kamenetz.

If teachers give students who are similar to them better grades, or even just maintain higher expectations of those students, what does that do for the students who don’t look or act like their teachers?

It’s important to balance teachers’ “holistic” evaluations with assessments that aren’t graded by a student’s own teacher, says Tobias Rausch, one of the researchers. He also thinks teachers should be trained to notice their biases.

Teaching without grading

When Mark Barnes decided to stop grading students’ work, it changed everything, he writes on Education Week Teacher.  “I’ll never put a number, percentage, or letter on any activity or project you complete,” he told his seventh graders.

Students who had only experienced traditional grades throughout their school lives were asked to discuss learning, to reflect and, ultimately, to evaluate themselves. Many were shocked, when we discussed an activity, and I asked them to return to prior learning, to rethink what they had done, and rework the activity for further discussion. An amazing and enriching ongoing conversation about learning was born.

I would review each student’s work, summarize and explain what I had observed, and ask questions. “Did you consider doing it this way?” I might inquire. “What would it look like if you tried this instead?” Soon, students had these informative conversations with each other, as they grew into enthusiastic, independent learners, who never feared a bad grade, because there were no grades.

The school required grades on the report card. At the end of the grading period, Barnes asked students to discuss their in-class activities and projects and suggest what grade they’d earned.

Here’s Barnes’ 7 reasons teachers should stop grading their students from his blog, Brilliant or Insane.

Starr Sackstein, a writing and journalism teacher, co-teaches a publications elective with two math teachers. They discuss letting students assess their own learning.

Bennett’s grade changed to F

Tony Bennett has resigned as Florida education commissioner days after AP reported he’d raised the grade of  a donor’s charter school when he was Indiana’s education chief.  Leaked emails showed Bennett pushed his staff to ensure a school he’d repeatedly praised earned an A, rather than a C.

“They need to understand that anything less than an A for Christel House compromises all of our accountability work,” Bennett wrote in a Sept. 12 email to then-chief of staff Heather Neal. The grade was raised by changing the way high-school scores are counted in schools without a senior class.

Bennett said Christel House’s C revealed a flaw in the accountability system penalizing schools that combined a middle and high school. However, earlier he’d refused to adjust failing grades for two district-run Indianapolis high schools, Arlington and Howe that had added middle school grades, reports the Indianapolis Star. Both were taken over by the state.

In the case of Christel House, emails unearthed by The Associated Press show Bennett’s staff sprung into action in 2012 when it appeared scores from the recently added grades could sink the highly regarded school’s rating from an A to a C. Ultimately, the high school scores were excluded and the school’s grade remained an A.

But in 2011, after IPS’ then-Superintendent Eugene White demanded Bennett consider the test scores of high school students separately from those of middle school students so the high schools could avoid state takeover, Bennett was unmoved.

Howe and Arlington have been failure mills for many years, writes Dropout Nation’s RiShawn Biddle, who worked for the Indianapolis Star.

Arlington’s officially-reported four-year graduation rate barely increased from 49.6 percent for its Class of 2006 to 55 percent for its Class of 2011. Much of that increase was due to IPS allowing the many students who failed Indiana’s battery of graduation exams to receive diplomas through the state’s waiver process; two out of every five graduates in Arlington’s Class of 2011 got their sheepskins through that loophole, a rate that has been steady for more than a decade.

Bennett’s fall could strengthen the movement to pull Florida out of Common Core, adds Biddle. Bennett was defeated for re-election in the Indiana race for superintendent in part because of his strong support for Common Core.

Education Gadfly has more reaction to Bennett’s fall.

Teachers lay blame for finals failures

In a suburban Maryland county known for high-performing schools, 62 percent of students flunked their geometry finals in January, 57 percent failed their Algebra 2 exams and 48 percent earned F’s on the precalculus final, reports the Washington Post.

Montgomery County high schools give the same math exams:  For the last five years, results have been poor countywide, though worse at some schools.

Under county policy, students can fail the final but pass the course.

For example, with C’s in each of a semester’s two quarters, an E on the final exam would still result in a C for the course. A student with two B’s going into the final exam needs only a D or better on the test to maintain a B for the course, according to the chart. The exam, worth 25 percent of a course grade, holds sway but can be greatly outmatched by daily classroom performance over time.

“Maybe the teenagers are blowing it off because the district is blowing it off,” said Tom Loveless, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies student achievement. “If the district doesn’t take the exams seriously, I don’t understand why they give them.”

Failure rates are high in biology, English and history finals as well.

Math teachers at Poolesville High school start their list of causes with acceleration of students through math to meet “unrealistic targets.”  Too many students don’t fully understand math, the teachers write.

Honors math courses are not substantively different from regular courses (to allow greater upward mobility), and as many students as possible have been placed in honors.  The result is that higher-performing students lack sufficient challenge and the small percentage of students not in honors find themselves in classes with no peer role models and a culture of failure.

. .  .The ubiquitous use of calculators in the early grades has resulted in students who lack number sense and basic skills and thus struggle to make the leap to algebra.

In all content areas, Montgomery County has undercut students’ motivation to work hard, the Poolesville math teachers charge.

High school students know they can fail the final and pass the course. They can skip assignments and receive the minimum grade of 50 percent.  Absenteeism is up because students face no consequences for cutting class.

UK study: Female teachers give boys lower grades

At least in Britain, female teachers mark boys more harshly than outside examiners, according to a London School of Economics study.

Expecting lower grades from female teachers, boys worked less in their classes, the study found. Girls think — incorrectly — that male teachers will favor them and work harder for them.

“Students from low-income families and minority ethnic backgrounds do not believe in systematic teacher biases,” researchers reported. They found no evidence of grading bias based on socioeconomic or minority status.

Crowdsourcing Sociology 101

Millions of students around the world are enrolled in hundreds of MOOCs (massive open online courses), reports the New York Times. To evaluate students’ progress, Princeton Sociology Professor Mitchell Duneier is crowdsourcing his Introduction to Sociology class, which enrolls 40,000 students.

 “It was really intimidating at the beginning to do these lectures with no live audience, no sense of who was listening and how they were reacting,” Professor Duneier said. “I talk about things like racial differences in I.Q., Abu Ghraib and public bathrooms, and I worried that my lectures might come across as examples of American ethnocentrism.”

Feedback came quickly. When his first lecture went online, students wrote hundreds, then thousands, of comments and questions in online discussion forums — far too many for Professor Duneier to keep up with. But crowd-sourcing technology helped:  every student reading the forum could vote questions and comments up or down, allowing him to spot important topics and tailor his lectures to respond.

Each student must score the work of five classmates to get their own score, which is an average of what classmates have given them. To see whether peer grading matches traditional grading, Professor Duneier and his assistants graded thousands of midterms and finals.

“I had to announce to the students that some had gotten scores that were higher than they should have been,” he said. “And as data, the midterm scores are useless. But it helped us learn more about writing rubrics.”

. . . So far, he has found an impressive correlation of 0.88. The average peer score was 16.94 of 24 possible points, compared with an average teaching-staff score of 15.64. Peer graders give more accurate scores on good exams than bad ones, they found, and the lower the score, the more variance among graders.

About 3 percent of students copied from Wikipedia.

Princeton doesn’t offer a certificate of completion for MOOCs and less than 5 percent of sociology enrollees took the exams. That added up to 2,200 midterm exams and 1,283 final exams, still a heavy scoring burden without crowdsourcing.

In 2 days, failing students pass, graduate

Three Los Angeles seniors who failed a required class, were able to transfer to a credit-recovery school for two days, pass and return to graduate with classmates, reports the Los Angeles Times. Teachers are annoyed.

 The students withdrew from STEM Academy of Hollywood as late as June 13, a Wednesday, attended the adjacent Alonzo Community Day School the next day, and checked back into STEM to graduate that Friday.

The three had failed economics or history classes taught by Mark Nemetz, who complained the fast shuffle “damages the credibility of STEM.”

“Why should next year’s seniors make a serious effort next year if they know they have this option available to them at the end?” wrote teacher Julio Juarez.

STEM Principal Josie Scibetta said she was obligated to accept the credits and  told the Times she’s concerned about Nemetz’s “rigid” grading policies.

Alonzo, the alternative school, is intended for students who are at risk of dropping out. Although it has a traditional school day, it measures credits only by work completed, not the time the students spend in class, said Principal Victorio R. Gutierrez.

It’s difficult and rare, but not impossible, for a talented student to complete in two days material that another student might need a year to master, Gutierrez said. He added that his school’s rigor does not necessarily match that of a regular high school, but his instructors teach the required material, and students have to produce work and pass quizzes to demonstrate their knowledge.

Credit recovery undermines standards, writes Walt Gardner on Ed Week.

To pass or not to pass

Elena drifted into sophomore English class without any materials and spent class time texting or socializing. She didn’t complete assignments.  Yet she reads and writes — when she bothers to do so — at grade level.  Occasionally, she made intelligent comments in class discussions. Her average is just below 60 percent. Should she fail?

She remained blissfully unconcerned as I cajoled, teased, chided, scolded, and threatened her into completing work. Calls home were unproductive, and other teachers indicated that English was not the only cause for academic concern. The school year was maddening.

Now, as the grades are totaled in June, I wonder: Do I hold her accountable for work left incomplete? Can she be exempted from the assignments that all her classmates completed? What is the minimum number of assignments that are the most important to determining student performance? If I exempt her from less important assignments, am I reinforcing her lack of responsibility? Finally, is passing her fair to the students who did complete the assigned work?

Elena doesn’t really need another year of 10th-grade English. She needs to learn to be a responsible student. But how?