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  • Writer's pictureJoanne Jacobs

Trying is not the same as achieving

Grading students based on effort rather than achievement is spreading from P.E. class to academic classes in high schools, but in colleges, writes Adam Ellwanger on the Martin Center blog.

What’s known as “

contract” or “labor-based” grading is “the latest front in a larger war on intellectual excellence, where the focus has now moved from lowering standards to eliminating them,” Ellwanger writes.

He teaches English at a university that serves many first-generation students who face significant barriers to success, including working long hours and speaking English as a second language. Failure rates in first-year English classes are high.

The university has tried increasing admission standards, providing more opportunities to remediate writing skills and working with local high schools to improve students’ readiness for college writing, he writes, but the problem remains.

Many faculty have changed their grading policies.

In the context of a writing course, it looks something like this: in the first week, each student elects a) how much writing they will do for the course, b) how much drafting and revision will be done for that writing, c) when the writing will be submitted, and d) how much “peer-review” of classmates’ writing he will do. Various choices on these bases correlate with different grades in the course. Assuming the student does the (work) promised, he will receive his preferred grade . . . regardless of the quality or competence of the writing.

“Trying is good,” writes Ellwanger. But he doubts that students will try very hard if there’s “no possibility of trying and nevertheless failing.”

Let’s imagine a hard-working student who does what’s asked yet ends the course unable to write a coherent sentence. Does handing out an “A” for effort serve that student’s needs or just make the school look better?

Elite colleges are doing fine, but the universities that serve the would-be upwardly mobile are losing students. Students and employers question the value of college. Does a degree signify higher education? Or is it a participation trophy?

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