All My Students Are Special

Apparently I work in Lake Wobegon. We were given a sheet with a grade breakdown from the first semester. Removing all the “fluff” electives left slightly over 1500 grades that were given. Of those grades, 733 were between an A- and an A+, and another 535 were between a B+ and B-. In core classes, I work at a school where 82% of the students are above average.

I decided to compare it to my own grades from the first semester. I learned that I am part of the problem, if it is a problem. While I gave out many more B’s than A’s, overall, 79% of my students are above average.

But why give out the summary of grades in the first place? Are they too high? Are we going to be dictated to bell curve the students? There was a statement about making sure we are asking rich questions that align to new standards. So I assume this was directed at the idea that we have average test scores and college placement, but our grades are extremely high. How does this happen? I can think of a couple of possibilities.

These will be skewed in a secondary school direction because that is where I teach.

First, maybe our teachers just don’t have adequate content knowledge. If I have substandard mathematical knowledge, I would have no basis to make judgement decisions on whether students have mastered the subject. I probably would struggle to make meaningful assessments. In spite of what students might think, I don’t really subscribe to this idea. It’s been awhile since I have met a teacher who I think just doesn’t know the subject.

Second, maybe our teachers match their criteria for success based upon personal experience. Maybe the experience of our teachers have taught them valuable lessons about work ethic, consequently the criteria for success in their classes, possibly made subconsciously, has consisted largely of assessments that allow students to demonstrate work ethic. Maybe our students have above average work ethic. This is somewhat true for me, but I actually have set up a system that only implicitly rewards work ethic. Work, on it’s own doesn’t get rewarded, however, if that work improves understanding and comprehension, then there will be a reward.

Third, and I hate to think how much it influences me, is the pressure to make sure there are equal outcomes. Right now, if a student fails my class and then complains, it isn’t the student that has to prove that the teacher made a mistake by demonstrating mastery of content. If a student fails, I have to justify the grade. When students get good grades though, A’s and B’s, and even C’s occasionally, no questions are asked. When that “A” student comes back with an ACT score of 16 we just write it off as test anxiety, which apparently has almost reached epidemic proportions. That ultimately stems from the pressure to make sure that learning opportunities are accessible to all.

But at some point accessible to all somehow morphed into everyone gets the same grade. Equal opportunity, which I don’t think anyone would ever be against, simply means everyone gets a chance, it doesn’t ensure everyone will succeed. It all sounds great until it is you or your kid that fails. Maybe the material wasn’t presented correctly. Maybe the teacher didn’t provide the right resources. Maybe there is some sort of disability that prevented content going to long-term memory. The point is this, when a student comes home with a report card, we ask what’s on it and if it’s A’s and B’s we congratulate the student and move on with our lives. If that report card has poor grades, the inquisition begins, with everyone looking to blame someone, teachers blame students and parents, parents blame students and teachers, students blame everyone.

Considering how utterly useless my subject is to most people, I find it easier to devise a grading criteria that will keep everyone happy. Students get the grades that will keep them scholarship eligible and parents off their backs. I get to set a standard that makes an “A” a token achievement of mathematical understanding, yet passing my class takes minimal effort. Sure, this is a very cynical take on grades, but it is an accurate description. I could make my grades really be reflective of mathematical knowledge, but I don’t think students would want that, nor would parents and administrators want the outcomes that would ensue.

Besides, if I really was concerned with mathematical knowledge, grades are a terrible motivator.

Best to keep living “A” lie and move on with our lives.

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