Thursday, May 28, 2009

Of Valedictorians and Significant Figures.

Not to change the topic, but why is education a horse-race? How can averages be any real measurement of or comparison between two students, when they are taking different courses from different teachers at (probably) different levels of difficulty?

I have always been at schools with valedictorians chosen after semester 7 and I HATE it. The only thing worse would be if we had chosen them after 8 semesters because then the two or three kids would be driven batty for their entire HS careers rather than for most of it.

We're not measuring them in a vacuum. We're measuring availability of a GOOD algebra in the eighth grade, not the BS that most eighth grade teachers are pawning off on their kids.

We're measuring the amount of constant worry about grades, rather than a more measured balance between doing your best and trying a course that might not be a slam-dunk but might be interesting or challenging.

We're measuring placement, too. My classes tend to be different from the guy across the hall. I have a different homework policy. He grades homework but I don't. His tests were hand-written for many years. I always typed. For some, this makes a difference. We grade differently as well. I use an overhead, he uses a blackboard.

We're measuring placement - will the schedule allow you to take AP English and AP Biology at the same time? Is your French 4 conflicting with your AP Physics? Why are you taking AP courses anyway (for the percentage push or for the knowledge and enjoyment)

We're measuring their lives. The kids who win are rarely the three-sport athlete-scholar, even though that kid at #8 on the list is far superior in almost any measure except GPA. Who are we rewarding? The kid who drops out of nearly everything but the academic grind.

From the first day they show up in the high school, their entire focus is on grubbing points so they can be #1 four years later. They choose courses based on whether it "helps" their average, not whether it is something they're interested in. Every test is an exercise in brown-nosing.

A couple of years ago I had two students who were on the "track". One took pre-calc as a sophomore and got a 97, the other took it as a junior and got a 96. The difference between the two grades could have been as little as 5 points on the final exam and rounding by GradeQuick. They finished within 0.003 points of one another. All other courses being equal (as silly as that statement is) means that the difference in difficulty between two of my finals might have been all that distinguished one from the other. One got the UVM full scholarship, the other didn't. Guess which one wanted to go to UVM. You're right, the other one. The valedictorian wanted to go to RPI and didn't use the money. #2 needed the money badly, but didn't get it. Interestingly, this scenario is repeated in one of the comments on Scheiss Weekly, here. It happens far too often to be tolerated.

In engineering and science, we would deride this as excessive use of accuracy pretending to be significant figures. Only in education can we imagine that we can judge that accurately with numbers that fluctuate constantly.

The center circle in a soccer field may 10 yards radius but we drew the line with a spray can tied to a string that wound around the center post and shortened it and we were walking around hunched over and weaving back and forth a bit. You can't say the area is 314.15926535897 yds² and pretend you know it to one-hundred billionth of a square yard just because there's a π key is on your calculator. GradeQuick does the same kind of thing. The precision is fantasy.

When you look at your teachers' grades, as I have, you find that grade inflation is rampant, but not consistent. There are far more 60s, 61s, 62s than there are 67s, 68s. Why? Because of the "bump". Inconsistency is a bitch if you are trying to be ultra-precise. The same happens at the top end. 95s get pushed to 99s or 100s by the "curve." Wherever your school has cut-offs, you find this shifting occurring. Pass-fail, eligibility minimums, honor-roll minimums, NHS reqs, whatever. The distribution is NOT correct. The dips below the cut-off points and the bumps above them are noticeable, if you look. Of course, guidance would never allow you to look if you ever let them know what was going on.

Try searching for correlations between SAT scores and grades in math - there's a real eye-opener in many cases. Are those As really As? Are those top kids really that good? When the kid gets an A in math all the way up to Calculus, but can only get 480 in 3 tries at the SAT, do you still have the same confidence in your grading system, it's fairness and your valedictorian?

There are other kids also making 100s, not because they are perfect and can solve anything in the course but because they are in a class that they outshine and the teacher can't give 105s. If you put them in with their peers, they might only get a 97. If you put them in the class that would be most beneficial, they might get a B, but would work their butts off and really learn everything trying to keep up. Why should placement be a part of the kid's worth?

Why should an IEP kid who gets 100s all time be the valedictorian if she cannot write a paragraph-long speech, or deliver it? (True story. The school quickly changed its mind. Ruined at least 7 rants for this blog.)

We need a change here, people.

You can pretend that a photo-finish is appropriate but it isn't. It certainly isn't if you consider all the ways in which parents and school can affect the situation out of the control of the kid. Think of all the shifting around that I've mentioned and you can come up with a bunch more.

How can we say that Alphonse is better than Gaston?

I'm in favor of identifying the "bunch" at the top and having them all participate - call it the TRUE Honor Society.

Having just one may be more satisfying to the ONE, but it's not education and it isn't real.

Just sayin'.

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