Substandard grade

Culture | Value-neutral report cards are not "proficient" in helping to determine whether a child is learning

Issue: "Daniel of the Year 2002," Dec. 7, 2002

Many parents scrutinizing their kids' mid-year report cards are noticing something missing: grades. They look in vain for A's, B's, C's, D's, F's, and even S's and U's. Instead, they are finding statements about whether their child can "count by 5's to 100" or can print his name clearly. Instead of receiving a letter grade for these accomplishments, the child receives a box checked showing whether he is "minimal," "basic," "proficient," or "advanced."

These new ways of breaking the news to parents are called "standards-based report cards." Schools that go this route are not necessarily practicing "outcome based education"--that attempt to codify what children are supposed to be learning that was hijacked by liberal educators and turned into a program for force-feeding children leftist propaganda on pain of being held back a year.

The "standards" movement is essentially a conservative educational reform, pushed strongly by the Bush administration as the centerpiece of its attempt to improve the nation's schools. Having specific standards that schools must attain forces educators to teach actual content, instead of flitting along with the vague "processes" and social formation that have preoccupied "progressive education" since the time of John Dewey.

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Whether Johnny feels good about arithmetic is one thing; whether he can actually count by 5's to 100 is something else, something tangible, observable, and practical. Whether Johnny can fingerpaint something worthy of the refrigerator door is well and good. But he needs to be able to write his name so someone else can read it.

Either he can write his name legibly or he cannot. Either he can count by 5's or he needs to keep working on it. Working with specific standards makes it possible to assess the child's progress with objectivity and precision, identifying what needs attention.

But why eliminate grades? Most schools that are adjusting to the new emphasis on standards are still giving letter grades. Standards report cards are relatively experimental, though many parents say they appreciate knowing exactly what their child has and has not learned. But why the squeamishness about saying whether a child's performance on these standards is what the letter grades symbolize, namely, "excellent," "good," "average," "poor," or "failing"?

One problem is that grades have become increasingly meaningless. If a student receives an A, that no longer means that he can necessarily count by 5's or print his name legibly.

Grade inflation is rampant, from first grade through graduate school. Some teachers just give everyone A's. That keeps both the students and their parents happy. In a university, giving everyone good grades is a way for professors to keep up their student evaluations--ironically, students grading their teachers tend to be stricter than the other way around--and good evaluations can lead to tenure and promotion.

Teachers and professors who resist grade inflation by being hard graders sometimes get into trouble, both with the administration and with parents. As in Lake Woebegone, all of America's children have to be above average. C's have become not an average grade, as the symbol signifies, but a bad grade. Students whine, parents complain, and sometimes lawsuits are threatened when a teacher gives a child a bad grade, or even a C. Sometimes conflicts erupt over a B+ as opposed to an A.

Letter grades represent "value judgments." Words like "excellent," "good," "average," and "poor" invoke qualities that people take far more personally than the flatly descriptive "minimal," "basic," "proficient," or "advanced."

People today, desiring to be self-righteous without the trouble of being righteous, bridle at any suggestion that they and what they do are less than "good." Parents often resent teachers who label their child as "average" or "poor" or "failing." And parents and their children will often do nearly anything for a label of "excellent," even if they are not excellent, including lying and cheating.

One phenomenon that contributes to the meaninglessness of grades, as documented by The Wall Street Journal, is parents doing their kids' homework for them. Not helping them, doing it. Our kids are too busy with soccer practice and all of their other activities, some parents are saying; they don't have time for homework. So we will do it for them. Some teachers report that students turn in essays in their parents' own handwriting.

In today's intellectual climate, evaluative judgments--whether intellectual, aesthetic, or moral--are considered to be subjective, and only observable facts from the external universe can claim to be objectively valid. A Christian worldview, in contrast, teaches that there are absolute standards of truth, beauty, and morality. But without these absolute criteria, value judgments--including grades--really do become subjective and thus meaningless. Ultimately, there can be no standards without Standards.

Gene Edward Veith
Gene Edward Veith


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