Practical Math

Note: I wrote this in 2012. It’s still all true, maybe even more true–except for the number of tech-related devices I carry at a time. My phone now replaces most of those!

I like technology. In my purse right now, I have a Livescribe pen, a digital camera, a couple USB cords and a recorder that I can talk into and download what I say into my computer, where it appears as typed words—often word soup, but even that fascinates me. Technology makes sense to me the same way that shopping for shoes makes sense to some women I know. I’m certainly not going to be the person who claims texting hurts communication, or that twitter is killing society–a sizable portion of my life in online, and I’m a firm proponent of tech in education.

However, the fact we can technologically do something doesn’t mean it’s the best way to accomplish the task. Just because we have the toys doesn’t mean we should play with them. To be bluntly specific, because of technology, we are turning students into accountants.

Every high school I know of requires teachers to keep their gradebooks online, and those gradebooks can be accessed by parents and students from any computer with internet access. That sounds like a terrific idea, giving the parents and students detailed information so the home can partner with the school to improve the student’s understanding and achievement I like being able to tell students to look online to make sure I credited all the assignments they have emailed me or to understand why their grade changed dramatically in the past week. Having continual access to a student’s grades is the type of idea that makes a great sound bite and gets unilateral support—who can oppose parents and students having the data to understand the progress the student is making?

Welcome to the dark side of the online gradebook.  One issue is that students live in an “instant gratification” society, and the ability to see their grades in real time feeds that jones. This week, I’ve had students hand me a paper, then say while they are still holding onto it, “So what’s my grade now?” If I haven’t put it in by the end of the class, there’s so much sighing and eye-rolling that I feel as if I’m surrounded by a flock of Scarlet O’Haras.

There’s another trend that shows students are becoming accountants After accessing their grade, some students will decide that they’ve “learned” enough, and not even attempt an assignment that doesn’t impact their grade in a concrete way. They’ll calculate points and percentages, then determine if the homework assignment will make a noticeable difference—it may seem as if every little bit helps, but in practice, that’s not true. Students who struggle with the state math tests often have a Einsteinian grasp of “gradebook math,” even with weighted grades or categorized assignments.

The flip side of that is students who don’t have the score they (or their parents) want, so they audit their points with the fervor of an I.R.S auditor who is bucking for a promotion. Every piece of paper they’ve written their name on needs to be accounted for, and they often try to dicker for missing points or the ability to turn in very late work—they almost always have a ten point paper from seven weeks earlier that would pull them up a percentage point, getting them that much closer to athletic eligibility or the next higher grade.

What do grades mean? Does having the technology to micro-manage grades lead to the student “learning” more? Maybe instead of having more trainings to make sure teachers and parents can use the technology correctly, we need discussions about how to use it wisely.

A, B, C, D: The Paradox I Live

I don’t believe in grades. That’s a blanket statement, and I do mean it. And yes, I did just submit names of students who will not graduate based on not passing my class, and I will be grading papers tomorrow to determine who gets an A, who gets a B and who gets to sit in my class again.

I don’t believe grades say anything significant or valid about a student’s accomplishment–except, of course, how well the student “plays school.” Kids who do all their work will get higher grades than ones who miss assignments. That’s simple math. And if a teacher factors in “participation points,” offers extra credit, or includes some other wild card, grades reward those who “play school” well even better. A student who has turned in but failed every assignment can, with those types of wild cards, pass a class. A student who gets all A’s and B’s on major projects or tests, but doesn’t do the daily stuff….it’s anyone’s guess how the grade will be tallied, and depends more on the teacher’s system than the student’s knowledge and skills.

It is possible that other content areas are easier to quantify; English is more subjective than most English teachers will admit. But consider this: there is no correlation in my school between the ACT, the Ohio Graduation Test, or the Watson-Glaser critical thinking test we’ve been giving and a student’s grade point average. While I understand the correlation wouldn’t be exact because of the purpose and formats of those tests, no correlation? That suggests something is flawed somewhere. As low as our average ACT score is (and it’s below the national average by enough to matter), over 25% of our students are on the Honor Roll.

Furthermore….even if I come up with a system of grading that gives good feedback on what a student has mastered, and what the student needs to work on–which would be a very valid type of assessment, I think–there’s another issue looming under us: what is the yardstick I’m using to measure with? Should students be assessed relatively, either against their own progress or against their peers in the class? Or is there an absolute standard that we should have as our guide?

For anyone who doesn’t deal with grading (lucky people), that’s the core issue behind “grade inflation.” Teachers don’t walk in, see poor, minority students and think, “wow, I’m going to right generations of oppression and societal marginalization by giving these students better grades than they deserve.” We grade paper after paper, and see which ones are better, which are weak, and before too long, our sense of “good” is skewed. Especially because most of us haven’t seen a wide cross-section of papers to gauge from before we get a pile of our own and a nifty red pen.

Until I went to an AP workshop with teachers from affluent districts–places where a noticeable percentage go to Ivy League colleges and most state schools are a last resort–and we spent a large amount of our time working with the very specific requirements of an AP essay, I had no clue what people in other types of schools thought an A or B paper was. My A papers would have barely gotten C’s from those schools. And I can list plenty of reasons my students shouldn’t be graded like that….which means I’m using relative grading, and there is not an absolute. Also, the underlying assumption there is that my students can’t compete with affluent kids–welcome to the perpetration of the underclass.

I watched a few episodes of “Dancing With the Stars” this season, and it was a petri dish of assessment. At the beginning, the stars get comments based on relative standards–Kate Gosselin and Nicey Nash (the non-dancer and the one with “jiggly parts”) heard about how they improved and what they needed to work on; but quickly, the star with potential–this season, Evan the Figure Skater and Nicole somebody–they got comments based on professional, experienced dancers, comments designed to push them. The judges were often boo’d by the audience, whose reaction was based on their emotional reaction instead of absolute standards. The scores, though–everyone got graded on the absolute standards. Kate Gosselin’s scores tanked; hard as she tried, she’s not a dancer, at least at this level. Even with the “curve’–the audience call in votes–the judges retain the power at the end. Their grades matter; their understanding of the absolute standard of assessment matters.

So… as I finish grading this week, I know I’m playing a game—but teachers become teachers because we “play school” well. The system needs overhauled, I know. Next time I’m ready to tilt at windmills, that’s on my list.