Degrading School

At least as far back as 1965, education researchers knew there existed no correlation between college grades and subsequent career success. In a review of the literature, “The Relationship Between College Grades and Adult Achievement,” published by ACT (the American College Testing Program), Donald P. Hoyt concluded that “…college grades bear little or no relationship to any measures of adult accomplishment” (paper). Hoyt later served as President of ACPA (American College Personnel Association). In a workshop he gave in 1970, he was still advocating for change in testing, assessment, and counseling that would be student focused: “The need for non-standardized measures occurs in two contexts. First, in helping students plan their future there is frequently a need for appraisal of special talents or inclinations beyond those concerned with academic background or potential. Second, is trying to determine the effectiveness of a given program – such as counseling method, teaching approach, or orientation program – standardized measures are seldom appropriate indicators of success” (paper). The workshop asked three decisive questions: “What is success? What is educational success? And how is a person appraised if he is doing well or poorly?” And how does an individual blend another’s appraisal with his own self-appraisal, particularly if he doesn’t speak the appraisal language? “Part of a middle class background,” Hoyt said, “which doesn’t let you enter freely makes you unable to talk. You can’t understand, you can’t feel, and I feel very much personally this way. I think if not the most significant, this inability to talk is one of the most significant problems in education today.” Yet he advocates for student self-appraisal because one of the most important outcomes of the appraisal process is “knowing who the customer is and knowing how he is proceeding.”

For the most part, Hoyt was speaking to testing assessments, but letter grades, often assigned subjectively, in spite of efforts to create objective rubrics, are also discussed and considered in the question concerning the effectiveness of the assessment process. But does the fact that a grade is assigned subjectively make it any less meaningful? Yet assigning letter grades in the adult student learning environment may lack a persuasive objective. Students may be given a weak rhetorical picture of achievement or progress, what is being measured may not be fitted to what was learned, raw intelligence may be rewarded while hard work may be ignored, and educators may not have reliable assessment data on which to judge the effectiveness of their programs.

Grading is a game of competition, and, increasingly, gamers are opting out. Last year, Harvard announced it would no longer “assume” courses would end with the traditional three-hour exam. The exams are now the exception rather than the rule. Predictably, not everyone was happy with the decision: “Even Harvard’s new General Education courses will abjure finals. We are left wondering: Without exams to prove it, how can students be sure that they are ‘generally educated’ when they graduate? How can the institution itself be sure? Or doesn’t it care?”, came a critique called “Bye-bye Blue Books?” in Harvard Magazine. Of course it cares, but one escapes a rip tide by swimming parallel to shore, not against the current. Meanwhile, grading is still the only game in town, with or without final exams. Louis Menand, writing in the May 21, 2007 New Yorker, said, “American colleges notoriously inflate grades, but they can never inflate them enough, because education in the United States has become hypercompetitive and every little difference matters.” But does every little difference matter? And, if so, matter toward what? Is education like golf? “You’re on your own,” Menand says. “Everything you do in a meritocratic society is some kind of test, and there is never a final exam. There is only another test. People seem to pick up on this earlier and earlier in their lives, and at some point it starts to get in the way of their becoming educated. You can’t learn when you’re afraid of being wrong.” Having to be right all the time both mirrors and shatters the expectation that the student must get an A, every time, on every paper, in every class. Menand concludes with this counter-proposal: “We want to give graduates confidence to face the world, but we also want to protect the world a little from their confidence. Humility is good. There is not enough of it these days.”

No game is more competitive, where, indeed, “every little difference” is vital to the outcome, than golf. Perhaps graders and graded alike might benefit from a review of the common but deceiving golf card. A par in golf is the number of strokes an average golfer is expected to hit on any particular hole. The pars traditionally are 3, 4, or 5. Comparing golf scores to academic grading, we might say that an Eagle (two under par) approximates an “A” (it being an unarguable assumption that holes in one almost never happen, and when they do it’s a matter of chance, not skill); a Birdie is a “B”; a Par is a “C”; and a Bogie is a “D.” The problem (as the analogy relates to grading) is that most amateur golfers never shoot par; they shoot well below par. The average is D or below. To be an average golfer is to be a below average golfer. That average golfers nevertheless fantasize and consider themselves “A” golfers is one of the emperor wears no clothes hilarities of our time. Golf courses are designed to test the golfer’s mastery of the sport, and some are more difficult than others, and the par for the course reflects this. Women tee off closer to the hole; but amateurs do too, and pros are supposed to hit from the most remote tees. Thus the first, and perhaps only, opponent in golf is the course.

Grades are the business side of school, the currency of the exchange, and the discussion of inflation and deflation is ongoing, as is talk of the need to revalue or devalue, of the value of the grade against some other currency. I wish we could degrade school. Doesn’t that sound funny? Of course that’s exactly what many think we have done. I got the idea for the term “degrading school” from Ivan Illich’s Deschooling Society.

Related: “Live and Learn: Why We Have College,” by Louis Menand, June 6, 2011, New Yorker.

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