Sunday, November 28, 2010

The triumph of the too-brilliant-to-bathes

How timely! Schools are now moving away from grading on the basis of folder organization, assessing students instead on the basis of test scores. The move "would allow teachers to recognize academic strengths where they often are not discovered — among minority students, or students from poorer families, or boys — subgroups whose members may be unable or unwilling to fit in easily to the culture of school." Which is to say, boys. This is, I suspect, about the male-female achievement gap, because I've never heard of a switch to a greater emphasis on test scores as a way of helping poor or minority students, at least not in recent years.

From the perspective of a student - specifically, of the student I was through early high school - this move sounds fantastic. I was always better at content than at coming across as a delightful little girl, in awe of the teacher. I had - and still have - messy "boy" handwriting. I wasn't rowdy or disruptive, I came to class and handed stuff in on time, but I had a strict and largely counterproductive anti-sucking-up stance.

From that of a teacher, yeesh. The student-teacher relationship demands a certain degree of equilibrium - students hand things in on time, teachers hand them back promptly. Competence on both sides is the bare minimum for the class to run smoothly. While it would be great to see the "A for effort" abandoned - teaching showed me that, at least at the college level, "effort" is virtually impossible for a teacher to assess - it's overall a good thing that students who might not be naturally talented at a subject can still get a passing grade for competence. What's wrong with keeping the As for students who are talented and hard-working, leaving Bs and Cs for those who are either-or?

The basic problem here is that behavior-work and content-learning-work are intertwined, in elementary school and beyond. However brilliant an assignment is, if it hasn't been handed in, there's no way to evaluate it. A great deal of informal networking and attention to self-presentation comes before any adult even has the chance to prove himself at a job. 90% of life is showing up and all that. The seemingly arbitrary requirements of school - use pencil not pen, or vice versa - are designed to mimic and thus prepare students for a world in which they won't even have the opportunity to be assessed if they don't have their acts together. Since virtually everybody has the opportunity to attend middle school, the best schools can do to prepare students for a future where their innate brilliance alone counts for zilch is to demand sharpened pencils or whatever. These requirements may also contribute to the class proceeding efficiently - and to the teacher not having to grade a semester's worth of assignments the final day of the semester - but they are not without use for the students themselves.

Another way to look at it - a simpler one, perhaps - is that three qualities are being assessed: competence, talent, and attitude. The new approach conflates attitude and competence - seeming endearing to a teacher and coming to class with the right notebook for that subject are not one and the same. Yes, teachers consider it evidence of poor attitude if students come to class unprepared, but that's not the main issue. Meanwhile, there is no such thing as academic talent independent of at least a minimum of organizational skills, aka competence. How is this elusive genius to be assessed in its unadulterated form, without giving an edge to students who, for example, have it together enough to show up on time the day of the test? A student whose true talent shines through, but only if parents, indulgent teachers, and homework helpers take care of the heaping pile of paperwork that is real life, doesn't have a special quality that schools should be honing in on and rewarding him for. Basing grades entirely on how often students forget their pencils may be extreme, but talent alone as good as doesn't exist.


Britta said...

Exactly. Not to mention that a huge amount of what you are required to master in K-12 includes putting in a significant amount of effort. You might be able to sleep through class, never do homework, and get an A on a math test, but that works less well in English or History, where doing well requires actually doing the readings and writing essays. While some people are more naturally gifted at understanding an argument/writing, no one can slack off and still do well if the class is remotely challenging, and since writing is a skill, those who actually practice it will still be better than those with natural aptitude who don't.

After elementary school (and usually not even then), I don't ever remember getting an "A for effort," even in gym class. If there is a trend of giving kids As for bringing in kleenex boxes rather than for doing well on exams or whatever, then I haven't heard of it before. I would say as a TA that signs of effort might make me more inclined to grade up in a borderline case, but that might be if I'm deciding between a C+ and B-, not between a C+ and and A. Also, it's more likely that I won't notice effort but more lack of effort (e.g. 2 inch margins, no citations, etc.), which again are usually coupled with a sloppy and poorly argued idea anyways.

Britta said...

Oh, one more anecdote to support your point. I once remember overhearing two professors discussing whether or not to accept an applicant into the program, and the person (a male), was apparently extremely brilliant, but also a bit arrogant and lazy. They were finally like, "we want someone brilliant AND hardworking," and decided not to accept him.

Miss Self-Important said...

I don't understand what this article is talking about. In what universe is an end-of-the-year exam the first thing ever invented to measure content mastery? Who ever got graded entirely on attendance or clean fingernails to begin with? Don't classes have assignments designed to demonstrate content mastery? I understand lowering an algebra for persistent bad behavior, but it's not as though the actual algebra tests and homework consists of questions like, "Did you bathe today?"

Anyway, I came across an article on gender and school for you amid some other research:

Withywindle said...

A friend of mine once got the wonderful note from a teacher: "X is very bright, although he does not communicate this by oral or written means." The sparkle in my eyes?, he wondered.

PG said...

Again based on my own experience, I think it's a lot easier to look good while being disorganized if the only measurement is an end-of-unit test. My standardized test scores, even before I started using prep materials (e.g. my scores on Texas's annual state exams), have always been better than my grades. I have never been tardy for an exam that would occur only once or twice a year, whereas I once got detention in high school because I'd been late to class three times in one semester. Job interviews mostly come closer to the "only a dozen or so such occasions in a year" of exams than they do to the "hundreds of times each year" of homework assignments. Nothing can measure your ability to show up and do the work every single day -- not pulling two all-nighters, not lucking out into finding just the right information through a well-crafted Google search -- better than having had to do just that.

Phoebe Maltz Bovy said...


How could a teacher assess effort except as an absence of glaring examples of a lack thereof? In the classes I've taught, a certain percentage of the grade was basically given to students if they handed everything in on time, according to the syllabus. Promptness implies effort, but which I'd distinguish from when a student comes to you and claims to have studied for that test for hours and still done poorly. Since I wasn't there, even if I give the student the benefit of the doubt, I can't know what it looks like when this student is studying. Only on the rare occasion that a student has presented me with the lists he's written out of all the conjugations and so forth do I feel I have any sense of effort-as-attitude, as opposed to effort-as-competence.


Maybe at certain schools, clean fingernails are highly valued? And thanks for the link - I get to read that as a reward for organizing, ahem, my studying-in-France paperwork.


This approach - that brilliance can be determined without any evidence, but on account of, say, a student's weaknesses when it comes to social skills, is surprisingly prevalent. It's not just that the brilliant aren't expected to bathe, but that the non-bathers are presumed to be preoccupied with something so important that they simply can't be bothered to wash.


As a fellow alum of the better-grades-than-scores method of secondary education, I hear you. But once you're an adult, you at least need to have signed up for the GRE or LSAT, to have landed the job interview, to have sufficiently impressed your references (who can speak to day-to-day behavior), etc. The difference for children is that they're handed a bubble sheet and, if they can sit still for an hour or whatever (I would always leave these tests as soon as possible), school administrators can look at talent without attitude or competence fudging the results. That sort of "pure" assessment is hard to find in the grown-up world, although it's certainly an argument for graduate/professional school for those of us unlikely to get by on day-to-day eager-to-pleaseness alone.

Britta said...

You're right, Phoebe, in that effort really only seems evident when compared to non effort. I guess if I get two papers that are probably on the whole equally bad, but one has 2 inch margins and few citations (nothing beyond what we went over in class), whereas the other shows an attempt (no matter how poor) to actually engage with the text separate from what was covered in class, has normal margins, etc. I would give the first a marginally lower grade than the first one. So, one paper might be a 74 and one a 75.

If the paper is in a weird format (odd font, no indentation, inconsistent citation format, etc.) I would comment but not detract points, unless maybe they repeatedly kept doing it in subsequent papers.

If a paper is brilliant but appears hastily written with little editing (e.g. obvious small typos throughout, maybe cut and past errors), I would give it the letter grade I thought it deserved based on the arguments, but maybe a point lower percentage-wise. (So a 94% A instead of a 95% A, and I might note that in the comments.)

On the whole, ideas and clarity matter more than format or grammar, etc., but at the margins I might take format/spelling etc. into account.