Obsession over grades is killing American Education

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Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 2:48 pm UTC

An open letter to college admissions committees:

Spoiler:
As a physics teacher who recently resigned from Loudoun County Public Schools, one of the wealthiest and fastest-growing public school districts in America, I urge you to altogether stop considering high school grades in your admissions process and decisions.

Our schools are failing. Rarely does real learning happen in modern classrooms, and when it does, it is often merely a byproduct of each student’s pursuit of an independent and potentially conflicting goal: high grades. While I can only speak to grading practices at my school, I suspect that these concerns are endemic throughout high schools nationwide.

First, high school grades themselves are very poor indicators of a student’s competence. As a graduate of MIT and Georgetown Law, I have experience in earning high grades and gaining admission to competitive universities. My grades were in part due to “grade engineering”: the process of maximizing grades with minimal effort and without regard to learning or understanding material. In other words, I received high grades partially by exploiting the weak correlation between grades and mastery.

At one time, I suppose, grades might have been an objective and reasonably accurate measure of competence in a given subject. Not anymore. Today, they primarily measure how well a student can game the system. It is quite easy for savvy high school students to pass a course, and in some cases even to receive an A or B, without actually knowing or understanding any of the course content. Here’s how:

Ÿ They choose easy teachers. Many teachers at my school believe that all students are capable of getting A’s; not surprisingly, very few of their students receive lower than a B. Are these amazing teachers who push their students to succeed or spineless grade inflators who don’t want to deal with angry parents? Because a student’s grade depends largely on his teacher’s philosophy of grading, students can avoid the annoyance of actually having to earn high grades by rationally choosing teachers who want to give them.

Ÿ They harass teachers about grades. Students and their parents often cooperate to make a teacher’s life a living hell. They pester the teacher weekly with requests for progress reports. They call the teacher during her lunch break to request extra credit or test retake opportunities. They write demanding and condescending emails. They schedule early-morning parent-teacher conferences to negotiate higher grades. They complain to the principal. They meet with guidance. They flex their muscles and put the teacher in her place. During my last week as a public school teacher, a colleague actually cried after receiving a nasty parent email. Given enough harassment, many teachers will either succumb to inflating grades or quit.

Ÿ They cheat. At my school, the likelihood of getting caught is low. Students can easily copy other students’ homework or plagiarize from the Internet. They can even cheat during tests, as many teachers give the same test version to every student. Even if a student is caught, there is essentially no consequence for first-time offenders so perceptive students readily make use of this free hall pass. Does cheating actually occur? In an anonymous survey of my 130 physics students, all but three admitted to copying homework or test answers from other students.

Ÿ They get into special ed. Not all of special ed is a sham but some of it is. I am not an expert in special education and I absolutely agree that specific learning disabilities exist that can be addressed with research-based interventions and procedures. However, instead of a shield, special ed (and its even shadier cousin, the child study) is often used by parents as a sword to gain competitive advantages over other students, particularly the small-group testing accommodation, in which students are taken to a different room by a special ed teacher who may “coach” the students. In my experience, this coaching tends to involve providing hints and interactive feedback that would be considered cheating if provided by fellow students, thus allowing students who are otherwise clueless in my class to ace my tests. Sadly, many students have learned to exploit their special ed status as a crutch and excuse for nonperformance, resulting in higher grades in the short term at the expense of accountability and achievement in the long term.

Ÿ They earn “completion” points by turning in all homework, projects and assignments. Completion is the new competence. Modern grading practices encourage children to turn in lots of shoddy work products because completion points, which now account in many classrooms for the majority of the grade, reward quantity over quality. By copying off other students and the Internet and even scribbling worthless nonsense to give the semblance of assignment completion, a student can receive the vast majority of credit on these assignments with minimal effort. Even if they bomb the tests — reflecting a total lack of understanding in the subject — they’ll still be able to pull off a B or C.

When students are judged for college admissions on an indicator that may or may not bear any resemblance to their actual level of mastery, an entirely rational response is to focus on the indicator itself. Why go through the arduous process of actually learning physics if you can pull off a B merely by copying homework, getting last-minute extra credit points, and having your parents harass your teacher for a retake when you bombed the test you didn’t prepare for? These grade-increasing strategies are now the rule in public education, not the exception. Sadly, the hardworking students who have integrity, an old-fashioned American work ethic, and a desire to actually learn are at a competitive disadvantage to their less-honest counterparts.

Consequently, the drive for high grades is blinding students and parents alike to the real purpose of education: learning. In parent-teacher conferences, “How can my child bring up her grade?” has replaced “How can my child better learn the material?” The system’s response to angry grade-obsessed parents and disgruntled students has been to fudge the indicator instead of improving the system in other words, to inflate grades in spite of worsening performance. I was routinely pressured by parents, students and even administrators to inflate grades in the form of curving scores, providing extra credit and retest opportunities, and more heavily weighting homework and projects that are easy to copy from friends. It is instructive to note that two-thirds of our students are on the honor roll. (That’s right.) When a majority of students routinely receive As and B’s in all their classes, the distinctions intended by a traditional A-F grading scale become hazy and meaningless.

Finally, grades are far too personal to be effective. When an A student receives a C in algebra, for example, she is fooled into believing that she is no good at math when, in reality, a C is (or should be) an indicator of perfectly acceptable performance in which there is room for improvement. As a result, her self-esteem and confidence take serious beatings and she gives up, even though real excellence is molded from a long cycle of falling and then getting back up again. Teachers are thus given the option of assigning honest grades that reflect true mastery — and of dealing with angry, discouraged students who have not been held accountable for their own education — or of deluding C and D students into believing they’re A and B students. The latter option will result in a generation full of misled “straight-A” students possessing few actual skills and a subpar work ethic who don’t understand why America is no longer economically competitive in the global marketplace.

The solution I propose is comprehensive exams at the end of each course, much like Advanced Placement exams, that thoroughly and objectively distinguish students on merit alone. The emphasis in each classroom would then shift from fighting the teacher for high grades to cooperating with the teacher to learn the material necessary to perform on the exam. Unlike Virginia’s Standard of Learning tests, which are essentially worthless baseline tests of rote memorization that do not distinguish the most competent students, AP exams test a broad array of knowledge and understanding. There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test,” because fundamental understanding and application of knowledge cannot be mastered by memorizing the answers to past exam questions.

The focus on grades is killing American education. In my book, “Full Ride to College,” I specifically teach students how to engineer their grades and exploit the weak correlation between grades and mastery, thus giving students a competitive advantage without the inconvenience of working hard and learning. While I consider this strategy to be a mockery of American education, it is also effective. Until such time as college admission committees stop soliciting and using archaic, meaningless high school grade information in their admissions decisions, I plan to continue teaching grade engineering, because it is the rational and efficient response to a grading regime in which students are rewarded for cheating, harassing teachers, and choosing classes based on the ease of grading instead of the quality of teaching.

Andrew F. Knight, former physics teacher, Potomac Falls High School
tl;dr: American students focusing on grades instead of learning are hurting our economic competitiveness. Colleges need to stop considering grades in admission and use more objective measures like AP tests.
Last edited by Dark567 on Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:25 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Shadowfish » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:22 pm UTC

I want to post this on reddit when I get home. Where should I link to?
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:25 pm UTC

Sorry forgot to include the link
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Angua » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:29 pm UTC

So, he wants a system closer to the England GCSE style of assessment instead of GPA?
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:33 pm UTC

Angua wrote:So, he wants a system closer to the England GCSE style of assessment instead of GPA?
That sounds roughly right. But I think it depends exactly what is in those... He critizes the Virginia standardized tests, while praising APs standardized tests. I'm not exactly sure where GCSE fall in that spectrum.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Elvish Pillager » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:35 pm UTC

"Standardized tests are a good way to judge students!" —a person who doesn't believe in testing accomodations

...yyyyeah, I agree that judging people by their grades is a truly pernicious thing, but this teacher's proposed solutions are just as bad. "There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test”" is an incredibly naive statement. If it's a problem that students are trying to optimize how they're judged instead of trying to learn the material, then the only proper solution is a student-led model of education that doesn't promote specific standards of judgment as the goal for student success. The emphasis on judgment is the underlying problem, and grade-grubbing is just the current way it manifests itself.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby ++$_ » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:37 pm UTC

I would be totally cool with this, but we have to get a MUCH better system of exams than the AP exams.

The APs are too easy and too formulaic. This means they are easy to teach to -- which would be fine, if the syllabi made them worth teaching to.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:41 pm UTC

Elvish Pillager wrote: "There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test”" is an incredibly naive statement.
I am not so sure. Its incredible hard to pass the AP calculus test, without knowing calculus. There is probably more of teaching to the test that can go on during something like AP History. One of the benefits though, is that the AP tests don't go out of their way to let teachers know what will be on them. If you don't know whats on the test often the best strategy is to teach the subject.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Elvish Pillager » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:53 pm UTC

Even if all that is true, it'll discourage teachers from spending time on material that's above and beyond what will be on the AP test. That's what "teaching to the test" is. I've been in classes where students frequently asked "Is this likely to be on the AP test?".

And that's ignoring the problems of letting the College Board decide what the course material will be in your classes... while you pay them lots of money.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby philsov » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:53 pm UTC

Should subjects that lack an AP or otherwise standardized test be considered in a college application in the first place? Cultural electives and sports? Freshman/sophomore English/History/Science/Math?

If the GPA function is removed then I can merely coast in those subjects if my goal is to get into college.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 3:55 pm UTC

philsov wrote:Should subjects that lack an AP or otherwise standardized test be considered in a college application in the first place? Cultural electives and sports? Freshman/sophomore English/History/Science/Math?
My university had a revised GPA that it used instead of the one given by my high school, it would remove electives, sports, band etc. and only include grades in Math/Science/English/History etc.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby kiklion » Mon Mar 26, 2012 4:00 pm UTC

What is wrong with teachers not going above and beyond the test? You have various students at various levels of knowledge of the subject. They will never all be in the same place. You have a finite number of teacher hours. The goal is to get as many of them to a certain standard level as possible. Once that standard is set, the teacher shouldn't be focusing on getting the advanced advanced kids above it, they should focus on getting the remainder up to that level. Should the student want to go further, the teacher can have an advanced studies group after school if they want, but class time is entirely to bring the students up to par.

Issues do arise however if the standard is set too low or too high.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby bentheimmigrant » Mon Mar 26, 2012 4:12 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:
Elvish Pillager wrote: "There is no such thing as “teaching to the AP test”" is an incredibly naive statement.
I am not so sure. Its incredible hard to pass the AP calculus test, without knowing calculus. There is probably more of teaching to the test that can go on during something like AP History. One of the benefits though, is that the AP tests don't go out of their way to let teachers know what will be on them. If you don't know whats on the test often the best strategy is to teach the subject.

I've not done AP, only GCSE and A-levels (and university level) exams, and there is a common theme in that you learn the style of question that appears in the exam. Of course you can't pass without knowing the basics, but you do learn the procedures to go through. This is not without its uses (although it's not intentionally taught in the form of heuristics), but there is no room for active problem solving and the like. Alternatively, you know the structure of the exam and know you can automatically ignore x% of the syllabus, as you are able to select questions, and simply do so by default based on what you studied.

Basically what I'm saying is this: While the UK system has it's strengths, standardised tests are not necessarily one of them.

kiklion wrote:The goal is to get as many of them to a certain standard level as possible.
Is it? Why is it not teaching them how to learn for themselves, or specifically to provide society with a smaller number of higher ability people? It seems to me that it is not so simple as simply getting the bulk of the class up to a certain level.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Griffin » Mon Mar 26, 2012 4:18 pm UTC

The sort of attitude kiklion is expressing right there? That's the sort of thing that I have every intent of dedicating my life to fighting against.

It's nice that you want to fuck over those who will end up going somewhere, but news flash! Going "above and beyond" tends to make ALL the students do better! Unsurprisingly, going a bit beneath the surface and diving into topics with a bit of depth, biting into content with some meat on the bone, makes students interested. People rise to expectations, and it's been shown time and time again expecting students to only achieve the "bare minimum" is one of the worst things you can do to them.

My High School AP History classes were perhaps the best classes I've ever had, and the teacher would always so no, this won't be on the AP test. But I expect you to not only know it, but know WHY it happened, how it influenced other situations, the context within which it occurred. I want you to keep in mind how this is all connected. It won't be on the test, but you should know it because this, this is history. Not dry and dusty names and wars, but instead close calls, complicated people, and a tangled web of intermingled influences.

He taught us, first and foremost, that history was incredibly interesting, and that's worth a million times more than any "base for common knowledge".

In fact... does anyone have any evidence that a base of common knowledge for most of this stuff is actually a good thing? Those who support standardized tests, would you support, say, standardized reading assignments in English as well? Every class has to read the same book as every other class, every quarter? Why/Why not?

Grades are killing America, sure, but I fail to see how switching to standardized tests will /help/.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Puppyclaws » Mon Mar 26, 2012 4:40 pm UTC

*shrug*

I agree something is broken, just not what he thinks is broken. Students only naturally look out for their best interest, which is grades. Even though homework makes up a huge percentage of the grade in high school courses, it almost never reflects the student's learning of the material, and is a worthless time sink in 99% of classes.

Also, colleges have and use plenty of independent measures other than grades, including essays and SAT scores. They used to rely more heavily on them than they do today (my understanding is that this shifted because in fact grades are pretty predictive of success in undergrad... anybody can back this up/refute this?)

I gained the most out of HS courses that were off the wall and not really particularly amenable to tests by outside organizations, because there simply aren't tens of thousands of HS students taking things like Japanese Literature. I also sort of resented testing by outside bodies, as did most of my fellow HS students (caused huge problems for our school's accreditation), in part because standardized tests just aren't very good measures of much (except class/race; they do a great job of measuring that!). I just don't agree that "students gaming the system" is the part of HS that needs to be fixed, and I would hate to have the US become another nation that uses high-pressure testing as the primary/sole measure of achievement for young folk.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby LaserGuy » Mon Mar 26, 2012 4:45 pm UTC

Griffin wrote:The sort of attitude kiklion is expressing right there? That's the sort of thing that I have every intent of dedicating my life to fighting against.

It's nice that you want to fuck over those who will end up going somewhere, but news flash! Going "above and beyond" tends to make ALL the students do better! Unsurprisingly, going a bit beneath the surface and diving into topics with a bit of depth, biting into content with some meat on the bone, makes students interested. People rise to expectations, and it's been shown time and time again expecting students to only achieve the "bare minimum" is one of the worst things you can do to them.


While I can't speak for what kiklion actually meant, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that if we want all teachers to go beyond the test, and that the current system incentivizes teaching to the test, we may simply wish to raise the standards on the test to the levels that we actually want students to achieve, rather than having the test set at the bare minimum.

As an aside, while it is rather impractical in most circumstances, I think that oral exams are generally the way to go if you really want to find the depths of someone's understanding of a subject. A fifteen minute oral exam is, IMHO, objectively superior to a 3 hour written exam in pretty much every possible way.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 4:48 pm UTC

LaserGuy wrote:As an aside, while it is rather impractical in most circumstances, I think that oral exams are generally the way to go if you really want to find the depths of someone's understanding of a subject. A fifteen minute oral exam is, IMHO, objectively superior to a 3 hour written exam in pretty much every possible way.
The problem is that an oral test isn't objective, its a subjective judgement by the person giving the test.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dauric » Mon Mar 26, 2012 4:57 pm UTC

LaserGuy wrote:While I can't speak for what kiklion actually meant, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that if we want all teachers to go beyond the test, and that the current system incentivizes teaching to the test, we may simply wish to raise the standards on the test to the levels that we actually want students to achieve, rather than having the test set at the bare minimum.


The problem is that increasing the minimum bar just narrows what can be taught, and straitjackets an instructor.

No two classes are going to be exactly the same, and a big part of a teacher's job is not just imparting facts and figures but teaching how to learn and exposing young people to a variety of topics so they can explore where their interests lie, and that they can learn things of academic interest while still following their own interests. And they have to do all this in a limited timeframe. It's not like "Well we'll just raise the bar" magically imparts more time to teach a subject, that additional material has to be taught in time that comes from somewhere.

If you're mandating the minimum that must be taught needs to be raised then you're preventing a teacher from doing something optional and independent of the curricula like, as one Algebra instructor of mine attempted, to show where the class material actually applies in the real world based on input from students about their own interests.

Just "Raising the bar" prevents a lot of productive creative approaches because it reduces opportunities to be creative, to try things , to tailor the material to an individual audience.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Griffin » Mon Mar 26, 2012 5:10 pm UTC

"Raising the Bar", via standardized tests and similar things makes things even worse. The whole point of teaching beyond the test is to teach beyond the short term - in essence, to teach for success. And tests "teach" that the moment is all that matters - cram for the test and forget all you learned, it doesn't matter, you're done.

It's messed up. People have become so tied up in tests and metrics and grades that I'm afraid they've forgotten what education is FOR.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby LaserGuy » Mon Mar 26, 2012 6:06 pm UTC

Dauric wrote:
LaserGuy wrote:While I can't speak for what kiklion actually meant, I think there is a reasonable case to be made that if we want all teachers to go beyond the test, and that the current system incentivizes teaching to the test, we may simply wish to raise the standards on the test to the levels that we actually want students to achieve, rather than having the test set at the bare minimum.


The problem is that increasing the minimum bar just narrows what can be taught, and straitjackets an instructor.

No two classes are going to be exactly the same, and a big part of a teacher's job is not just imparting facts and figures but teaching how to learn and exposing young people to a variety of topics so they can explore where their interests lie, and that they can learn things of academic interest while still following their own interests. And they have to do all this in a limited timeframe. It's not like "Well we'll just raise the bar" magically imparts more time to teach a subject, that additional material has to be taught in time that comes from somewhere.


I'm not suggesting that we teach additional material. I'm suggesting that we teach the same material, but set higher expectations for the understanding of that material. Or even teach less material if need be. I would prefer to replace quantity with quality. I would also not be opposed to adding more instructional hours either, by extending the school day or reducing the length of the summer holidays, for instance.

Maybe I'm just operating under a different idea of what standardized testing looks like. When I think of an ideal standardized test, I would normally point to my standardized final examination for grade 12 English. The test had a three sections: the first gave the students a series of ten or so statements, and we had to correctly identify what, if any grammatical errors were in them. In the second section, we were given a poem, or perhaps a section from Shakespeare or some other bit of similar literature, and had to write three or four short paragraphs explaining the meaning of particular passages, or about the theme or symbolism in the poem. In the final section, we were given a 1-2 page article to read, and were then asked to write an essay from a selection of prompts that pertained to the article. To my mind, this is something like what a good standardized test should look like. It's not really looking for any facts or figures at all, and isn't expecting students to use any particular text or material; it's expecting students to use higher order thought to extract useful information from and respond to source material that they are completely unfamiliar with.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Griffin » Mon Mar 26, 2012 6:42 pm UTC

...okay, yeah. Admittedly, I think English is one of the few subjects with actual decent tests. Oddly enough, they are also one of the subjects where teachers have the most control over the strength of their curriculum, and the tests are more about showing you learned the ability to understand rather than memorize rote facts. If we're going to go with high-standard english-style tests for other subjects, I guess I'm good with that.

But those tests are also remarkably subjective on many levels, and there are quite a few people who fight tooth and nail against that sort of testing. :/
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby kiklion » Mon Mar 26, 2012 7:31 pm UTC

The problem with going above and beyond the curriculum is that you are failing every other student in the class who is not at that level. A very basic example may be teaching kids factorization if they picked up multiplication/division easily. However by not spending more time on the multiplication/division you are going to have kids that could have learned it with more time, however that time was not given. Furthermore, suppose that factorization would be covered in the next year, those 'advanced' kids would now be taught something in more advanced, while those who still don't grasp multiplication or division fall further behind as they don't have the base to expand on.

No matter where the bar is set, you will have these issues. It would be wonderful for every student to have a teacher that goes at their exact pace but it is improbable that would ever happen without incredible advancements in AI technology.

Another argument for a standardized bar is in student movement. To be placed at the proper level should you move around the country or perhaps immigrate into the country. Sure you may know X well enough for a 10th grade level, but you never learned Y and that is covered back in 8th grade nor z which is in 9th grade since instead they covered topics not covered here/spent longer on topics.

I saw this first hand as I went from being in advanced math courses, to going to a catholic H.S for half a year, then back to H.S where they wanted to put me in a special needs class because it was the only way to get the topics taught to me that I missed. I ended up taking a proficiency test and they placed me into the AP class. I got to take a full year on proofs.

~edit: I can also see tests being valued differently in different subjects. Sure it may be nice if people could memorize every major character in asian history and what they were famous for as well as the geography of every location of historical significance... but there is just too much history in the world to not expect students to forget much of what is taught 2 or 3 years from the test without repeating it every year. Compare that to math where you are not memorizing facts but formula and the formula itself can be understood such that if you forgot the formula you could figure it out yourself. Furthermore, everything you learn in one year may very well be repeated in the next such that you never have a chance to forget it.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby CorruptUser » Mon Mar 26, 2012 7:42 pm UTC

Is there a way to determine if a student has learned something other than to test them?
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby addams » Mon Mar 26, 2012 7:50 pm UTC

This is such an interesting thread.
Good points one and all.
The above poster is right. The only way to know is to test. Test scores are not the only measure of a persons worth. Yet; The only way to know is to test.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Griffin » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:00 pm UTC

There are other metrics that can be used, yes. Assignments, essays, projects that occur over the duration of the year. I had many classes in University that had no tests and no homework, and yet I could still pass and fail them. They are not the be-all and end-all of progress measurement.

Though tests aren't bad things, its just tempting to use them poorly and forget that are supposed to measure progress towards the goal, not to BE the goal.

Kiklion - you sounds like you've only had experiences with very poor classrooms and teachers. I feel sorry for you. But none of the things you are saying are necessarily true - they certainly can be, with a poor teacher, but those teachers will likely manage to screw up even your "teach to the lowest common denominator" approach.

But there is nothing that says every student in a class has to be taught at the same rate, and there are many ways to go "above and beyond" that /benefit/ those that are behind. Because above and beyond generally isn't about covering a wider variety of material (which would make things harder for them, yes), but by covering material in more depth. And I fail to see how a deeper look at something is supposed to be generally detrimental to those involved.

Especially since the /reason/ those students are struggling is often that their understanding is so shallow - that they have, essentially, done the "bare minimum" and nothing more. I believe, if they learn what they "need" to to advance, they should pass the class, sure (with a C, at best), but I don't think that's any excuse at all to stop learning at that point. Or to stop teaching.

If in a class of 25, little Johny still can't add numbers after 3 weeks, should the rest of the class just wait around for him to get it before moving on? Can you see how damaging that can be for people?
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:07 pm UTC

Griffin wrote:Though tests aren't bad things, its just tempting to use them poorly and forget that are supposed to measure progress towards the goal, not to BE the goal.
Right, the goal is to be educated, to be able to solve problems and have access to a baseline of knowledge. Unfortunately anyway to evaluate that is only via proxy, and the students ability to communicate through that medium will also end up being evaluated.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Griffin » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:17 pm UTC

And sometimes, such as in the process of "teaching to the test", the whole process is subverted. Tests can only ever sample, so the idea of limiting yourself to what will be on it so as to do better at it stands in direct opposition to what education is supposed to accomplish.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:19 pm UTC

Griffin wrote:And sometimes, such as in the process of "teaching to the test", the whole process is subverted. Tests can only ever sample, so the idea of limiting yourself to what will be on it so as to do better at it stands in direct opposition to what education is supposed to accomplish.
Ideally, you won't know whats on it.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Garm » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:24 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:
Griffin wrote:Though tests aren't bad things, its just tempting to use them poorly and forget that are supposed to measure progress towards the goal, not to BE the goal.
Right, the goal is to be educated, to be able to solve problems and have access to a baseline of knowledge. Unfortunately anyway to evaluate that is only via proxy, and the students ability to communicate through that medium will also end up being evaluated.


That bold part is key. The problem with most standardized tests, especially multiple choice tests like the SAT and ACT, is that all you're testing is the student's ability to test. You're not testing their critical thinking ability, their ability to absorb information, or even the level of proficiency in math, language, or science. I taught ACT prep classes for the Princeton Review for several years, and my wife taught SAT and LSAT prep for Kaplan. All the multiple choice tests are a joke. With very little prep, I could probably get a 32 or higher on the ACT in about half the allotted time. My wife took the LSAT last year and got a 177 (I think, definitely over 170) without studying. Once you understand the mechanics of the test, the questions don't even really matter.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dr. Diaphanous » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:31 pm UTC

This thread needs more evidence!

Here are some examples of exams and marking criteria for anyone who is interested. (All from England) (links are to biology papers but other subjects can be viewed on the sites):

GCSE (Age 15-16): http://web.aqa.org.uk/qual/newgcses/science/new/bio_materials.php

A-level (Age 17-18): http://www.aqa.org.uk/qualifications/a-level/science/biology/biology-key-materials

Spoiler:
These were very much "taught to the exam" because a lot of the teaching was directly based on the textbooks printed by the exam board. The mark scheme is pretty inflexible, so you can't really use extracurricular knowledge, but it is not the teacher's decision what mark you get so parent's pestering is limited. The weeks before the exam season were spent doing exams from past years and discussing the answers in class until we knew the marking criteria inside out. This is necessary because otherwise I could not have got full marks, even when I knew the answer, because of not giving the answer the examiner was looking for (e.g. not giving enough details or giving irrelevant details). There is also assessment based on course work and lab-based exams.

University: http://www.bath.ac.uk/library/exampapers/?dept=BB&code=&sort=code

Spoiler:
The year is indicated by the first number in the code, so BB1... is Biology & Biochemistry year 1; BB2... is year 2; BB4 is final year even on 3 year courses.
These exams are set by the lecturer who teaches the course, so it's not so much taught to the exam, as the exam being based on the teaching. The ability to chose which questions to answer means you only ever need to learn half of each module. Exams are essay-based (i.e. regurgitate as fast as possible as much of the topic as you have crammed in in your last-minute revision). End-of semester exams are usually about 70% of the mark for each module, the rest being essays, presentations, and lab reports.


Edit: The third link seems to require you to login, so here it is an example in text (2nd year biology):
Spoiler:
University of Bath
Department of Biology and Biochemistry
Friday 23 May 2008 0930 - 1030
THE DYNAMIC CELL
ANSWER TWO QUESTIONS
ONE FROM EACH SECTION
ALL QUESTIONS CARRY EQUAL MARKS
Complete a new cover for each answer, ensuring you label it with the question number and your candidate number.
Calculators are not required.
CANDIDATES MUST NOT TURN OVER THE PAGE AND READ THE EXAMINATION PAPER UNTIL THE CHIEF INVIGILATOR GIVES PERMISSION TO DO SO

SECTION A
1. Describe the basis for cell migration, outlining the steps involved and the key molecules underlying each. Use one or more examples to illustrate your answer.
2. “Cell-cell adhesion depends upon desmosomes alone”. Discuss, detailing the molecular basis of any cell-cell junctions you mention.
SECTION B
3. Monomeric GTP-binding proteins are required for a number of different processes associated with transport of proteins from one compartment to another. Giving specific examples, describe the function and mechanism of action of these in the secretory and endocytic pathways.
4. Many protozoan parasites live and multiply inside specific cells of their mammalian hosts. Using specific examples, discuss the complications this imposes on their cell biology, and how it is modified to overcome these complications.
Last edited by Dr. Diaphanous on Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:40 pm UTC, edited 1 time in total.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:36 pm UTC

Garm wrote:
Dark567 wrote:the students ability to communicate through that medium will also end up being evaluated.


That bold part is key. The problem with most standardized tests, especially multiple choice tests like the SAT and ACT, is that all you're testing is the student's ability to test. You're not testing their critical thinking ability, their ability to absorb information, or even the level of proficiency in math, language, or science.
I wouldn't take it that far. You really aren't going to good on the math section of the tests without being able to do algebra and trig. Your going to have a hard time with the grammar section without knowing the basic rules of grammar. You need to have the vocab to do well in the analogies section of SAT. The reading and science sections on the other hand are really just about test taking abilities..... Still I don't believe test taking abilities are going to make up for major deficiencies in math and vocab. It will certainly help get a higher score if you have those proficiencies, but your still going to do terrible without them.

The point I was making with the bolded statement though is that this applies to more than just standardized testing. The ability to judge how good someone is at science by having them write and essay will often involve evaluating huge portions of their writing ability sometime even more than their understanding of science. The same can be said of oral presentations, group projects etc. Any evaluation method evaluates the students proficiency at communicating via that method, not just standardized testing.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Telchar » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:47 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:
LaserGuy wrote:As an aside, while it is rather impractical in most circumstances, I think that oral exams are generally the way to go if you really want to find the depths of someone's understanding of a subject. A fifteen minute oral exam is, IMHO, objectively superior to a 3 hour written exam in pretty much every possible way.
The problem is that an oral test isn't objective, its a subjective judgement by the person giving the test.


Is that bad? Depending on the method of scoring it doesn't even have to be subjective.

Objective, normed testing will only get you so far. If you want to try and get closer, you're going to need to introduce some subjectivity. That's a fact that anyone who has ever designed tests will tell you.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby LaserGuy » Mon Mar 26, 2012 8:57 pm UTC

Garm wrote:
Dark567 wrote:
Griffin wrote:Though tests aren't bad things, its just tempting to use them poorly and forget that are supposed to measure progress towards the goal, not to BE the goal.
Right, the goal is to be educated, to be able to solve problems and have access to a baseline of knowledge. Unfortunately anyway to evaluate that is only via proxy, and the students ability to communicate through that medium will also end up being evaluated.


That bold part is key. The problem with most standardized tests, especially multiple choice tests like the SAT and ACT, is that all you're testing is the student's ability to test. You're not testing their critical thinking ability, their ability to absorb information, or even the level of proficiency in math, language, or science. I taught ACT prep classes for the Princeton Review for several years, and my wife taught SAT and LSAT prep for Kaplan. All the multiple choice tests are a joke. With very little prep, I could probably get a 32 or higher on the ACT in about half the allotted time. My wife took the LSAT last year and got a 177 (I think, definitely over 170) without studying. Once you understand the mechanics of the test, the questions don't even really matter.


I sincerely believe that removing multiple choice tests entirely from the education system is probably one of the simplest changes you could make to dramatically improve the quality of education across the board.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Griffin » Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:00 pm UTC

I've never really seen the point of multiple choice. At least the bulk of the SAT wasn't multiple choice last time I took it though.

Also, if anyone has any questions about the "grading process" for these standardized tests, let's just say I'm married to someone who is intimately familiar with the process on account of having sunk several thousand hours into grading them. So if people have questions about how grading works, let me know, and I'll ask.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dark567 » Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:04 pm UTC

Griffin wrote:I've never really seen the point of multiple choice. At least the bulk of the SAT wasn't multiple choice last time I took it though.
It's absolutely objective. You get it right, or you get it wrong, there is no subjective opinion too it. Also, its easy to grade large number of tests.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby maybeagnostic » Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:05 pm UTC

Griffin wrote:I've never really seen the point of multiple choice. At least the bulk of the SAT wasn't multiple choice last time I took it though.

Two thirds of the SAT grade comes from multiple choice questions. Maybe you are thinking of another test?
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby jseah » Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:08 pm UTC

What you can do is test in creative ways. The test questions should be structured around solving a problem or applying a principle; and should be lengthy enough to cover alot of the topic.

The structure of the test should also adhere to what is generally used by that field. That way, even if the test forces the student to learn the structure of the test, that is STILL a useful skill: being able to communicate in the accepted style of professionals of a field.

Here's how I would envision an ideal science test:
2 parts, each 3-6 hours long, but students are not expected to take the entire time to answer the questions. More than enough time should be allocated for the students to derive much of the equations or principles from basic knowledge if so required. Time pressure is not often met in the field and thus should not be tested.
1st part is a practical exam. The students are given a question, and asked to answer it and provide experimental data to back up their answer. The question should not give any information beyond the absolute minimum for communicating the question; and the question itself should not have an obvious answer.
(eg. Physics: Determine the refractive index, specific heat capacity and moment of inertia of the block of glass provided. Also indicate on a diagram the position of its center of gravity. You may assume the block is made of a uniform material. )
(eg. Chemistry: The mixture provided contains salicylic acid and a metal. Identify the metal contaminant (and its oxidation state) in the mixture. Use the mixture and the acetic anhydride to produce aspirin - acetylsalicylic acid - and purify it in a crystal form. )
- some simple to precipitate metal is used, like lead or calcium. Sodium is going to be a bad choice, obviously.
The student is given access to a high school laboratory with equipment necessary to perform any experiment taught on the syllabus. The student is required to invent his own series of experiments as well as record his experimental setup and results in a lab notebook.

2nd part is a paper test. The students are given a set of data as well as the experimental setup and the question the experimenter was trying to answer. This data is generated by an actual run of the test described. Students are expected to write an experimental report based on that data, as if writing a short article to be published. (-introduction section should be given as part of the test-; the students write Materials/Method, Results and Discussion)
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Griffin » Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:34 pm UTC

maybeagnostic wrote:
Griffin wrote:I've never really seen the point of multiple choice. At least the bulk of the SAT wasn't multiple choice last time I took it though.

Two thirds of the SAT grade comes from multiple choice questions. Maybe you are thinking of another test?


I think its a combination of that and the multiple choice ones being less memorable.


Dark567 wrote:
Griffin wrote:I've never really seen the point of multiple choice. At least the bulk of the SAT wasn't multiple choice last time I took it though.
It's absolutely objective. You get it right, or you get it wrong, there is no subjective opinion too it. Also, its easy to grade large number of tests.

The first part doesn't really apply to math questions, and a ton of those are multiple choice too. For reasons I could never quite comprehend. The second seems far more likely to be the prime motivator.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby Dauric » Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:42 pm UTC

Multiple choice is easy to scan-tron. Dump the tests in a hopper, let the feeder run them past the scanner, done. You need a very small fraction of the personnel you would need to evaluate essays, or even hand-written short-answer. I'm not sure how well current OCR is at recognizing scanned handwriting (variances in line weight with pencils, and attempts to correct pen by scribbling out and rewriting answers being obvious issues), and even if it's at that level deploying it in any uniform fashion to support nationwide standardized testing would be a significant barrier.
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Re: Obsession over grades is killing American Education

Postby addams » Mon Mar 26, 2012 9:46 pm UTC

Dark567 wrote:
Griffin wrote:I've never really seen the point of multiple choice. At least the bulk of the SAT wasn't multiple choice last time I took it though.
It's absolutely objective. You get it right, or you get it wrong, there is no subjective opinion too it. Also, its easy to grade large number of tests.

That is the best or one of the best reason for multiple choice. There are other good reasons.
Multiple choice allows for many questions to be answered quickly.
Multiple choice allows for different levels of understanding to be evaluated.

Essay tests are horrible. Knowing a lot is not an advantage during an essay test. There is always a time component. It is tricky to write an essay answer for a subject that is understood. Those are called books and they are rarely done in one sitting.
What does the person the that will read this thing want to know? Shoot! I hate essay exams of all flavors.
Multiple choice has other advantages. What are they?

Of course, there are the practical tests. Those are hard, yet, necessary. Can you apply the theory? Can you do it while an expert watches? Can you do it while people are screaming? Oh. Just how practical do we need to be? Practicals do teach us how to focus. Right?
Hey. Did that guy write that time constraints do not happen in the field? What field is that? Time is a big deal in some areas of study.
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