Banning Grades of ‘Zero’ from Schools

FDR_report_cardA City Paper story last week reported on the move by Metro Nashville Public Schools to eliminate zero as a score on assignments, with 50 percent now becoming the lowest “F” grade a high school student can receive. The story elicited the whining one might expect from commenters about the dumbing down of education. Wrote one: “That is exactly what is wrong with our schools. So students who do not turn in an assignment still get half credit for doing it, even though they did nothing?” Another: “This is the most asinine policy I’ve ever heard. I thought child raising was moving away from everyone gets a trophy.”

In this case the school system has it right, and the whiners have it wrong. The reason isn’t pedagogy or tolerance for mediocrity or compassion or trophyism; it’s simple math. It is mathematically inane (and unethical) to grade on a 100 point scale and use zero as the marker of failure or non-performance.

Assume, for instance, that one connects percentage grades with letter grades by having 90 mark the dividing line between A and B, and 80 for B/C, 70 for C/D, 60 for D/F. (I don’t know that MNPS systematically uses these dividing lines but they are likely in the ballpark of how most people think about grades on a 100% scale.) Giving a zero on something throws into the student’s average a number for failing performance that is lower than the distance between C and D by a factor of five. It makes no sense to do that. One has to earn 150 on another assignment just to balance the the failure to achieve an average of 75.

Think about the 4.0 grade point average (GPA) scale common in higher education and some secondary schools. That scale makes sense because grade values of 4 (for an A), 3(B), 2(C), 1(D), and 0 are arithmetically equidistant, and because the number assigned for failing performance and non-performance is the same: zero. In linear mathematical terms, giving a student a zero on a 100-point scale where 60 is otherwise the D/F dividing line (so let’s call 55 a straight-up F) is the equivalent of giving a student graded on a 4.0 scale a grade point value of -5.5 and then averaging it in with all the other scores that range from 0.0 to 4.0.

The use of 100-point grading scales has always been idiotic for this reason, unless the teacher curves or concatenates the bottom end of the available range so that the lowest possible score (somewhere in the 50s, presumably) is in sync with the magnitude of steps across the overall range of grades. MNPS’s “let’s bottom out at 50” policy accomplishes this, making the system smarter, not dumber.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

Common Core: The Paranoid Right’s Latest Existential Threat to the Republic

TennFrontPageThe Tennessean this morning devoted vast dead tree real estate to the Common Core standards that are reshaping public school curricula in Tennessee and 44 other states. Although these standards have been around for a while as states have been adopting them one by one (Tennessee did so three years ago), new testing coming in 2014 has put Common Core on the front burner, especially for opponents and skeptics. Last week hundreds of conservatives gathered at a Franklin hotel to hear speakers rail against Common Core. Indeed, many on the right have reached full-tilt froth mode at the looming horrors they see in Common Core, although figuring out the substance of their objections turns out to be a bit of shell game.

It should be acknowledged up front that Common Core is encountering some backlash from the left as well: Progressives are unhappy with new exams polluting an already toxic educational culture of standardized testing mania, and many teachers (and their unions) are worried that the implementation cart is being put ahead of the teacher-training horse.

But while liberals may be worried that the product is being rushed to market, so to speak, conservatives seem to think the product is itself an affront to civilization and human decency. So just what is the conservative beef with Common Core?

The Tennessean piece last week reporting on the Franklin gathering is unenlightening, offering only two sentences on the substance of opponents’ critique:

Opponents of Common Core accuse the Obama administration of dangling billions of dollars in Race to the Top funds to get states to sign on to its notion of what children should be learning. The opponents say that, rather than raise student achievement and accountability, it dumbs down academics and leads to data-mining of student information.

The first sentence is partially true: To be eligible to apply for Race to the Top funding, a state had to show “its commitment to adopting a common set of high quality standards,” and the way to do so is through “participation in a consortium of states…working toward jointly developing and adopting a common set of K-12 standards…that are supported by evidence that they are internationally benchmarked and build toward college and career readiness by the time of high school graduation” (source: Federal Register, 4/14/10, p. 19503). The Common Core, an outgrowth of an interstate consortium, is essentially the sort of thing being described here, although Race to the Top (quoting from its FAQ) “does not endorse any particular consortium or set of standards.”

The second sentence is outlandish. Whatever one thinks of the existence of national standards (a pretty good idea that happens to work out nicely in most advanced countries), you can’t look at the actual substance of Common Core and see in it a dumbing down of anything. I challenge anyone to review the Common Core standards document covering English, Social Studies, and Science and explain where this dilutes down anyone’s education. It is precisely because states including Tennessee were assessing student achievement so leniently that this whole thing emerged.

For more insight on what opponents are thinking I paid a visit to the Tennessee Against Common Core website, the home page of which blends a confusing attack on Bill Gates (who apparently “can buy whatever he wants, even our children’s minds”) with a curiously unhinged analogy between Common Core and Adolph Hitler’s ordering all children into government schools in 1937. Deeper on the site we encounter a 16-page PDF (cribbed with permission from Utah’s anti-Common Core group) telling us that Common Core is “the nationalizing and even globalizing of education.” Opponents see it as illegally establishing a national curriculum, even though anyone who bothers to actually look at the Common Core standards documents can see quite plainly that it isn’t a curriculum, and in any event no state is compelled to have anything to do with it.

It is true that federal law constrains the U.S. Department of Education’s ability to mandate curricula and assessments, but there is nothing mandatory here. Although the whole Common Core initiative is a voluntary thing among states, conservatives object to standards as a condition for Race-to-the Top funding — these “incentives have clouded the picture,” in the words of Iowa Senator Chuck Grassley and several of his GOP colleagues. This objection is nonsense. Federal money to states is routinely conditioned on policy expectations, and states are perfectly free to opt out and not apply.

At the end of the day the conservative backlash against Common Core feels like yet another case of right-wing anti-intellectual paranoia. As one commenter on the Stop Common Core in Tennessee Facebook page declares, “This is about federal take over and the state, teachers and parents giving up their rights to the feds. Federal government control = mind control.” Another: “If I wanted to live in a socialist/communist society I would have moved elsewhere…what happened to our Democracy!?”

Common Core may not be the magic bullet that will fix K-12 education in the country, but calling it out as a dire existential threat to the republic will accomplish even less — except perhaps demonstrate that opponents haven’t bothered to read the thing.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

The Free Speech Police: University Edition

On Inside Higher Ed today, a story about universities that seek to regulate social media use by student athletes. Some programs require athletes as a condition of participation to use monitoring software that alerts school officials when untoward thoughts become untoward posts and tweets. The lesson that university athletics departments apparently want to impart to their young charges is that freedom of expression might be a lovely concept, but not for you.

According to a report in the Courier-Journal, the University of Louisville uses software to flag over 400 words and phrases in posts and tweets, mostly having to do with substance use and sex. Most of the phrases flagged by the University of Kentucky’s version of the software are sports agents’ names. They do this monitoring with a product such as UDiligence, which searches social network profiles and posts (Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, and YouTube) for “for profanity, racial slurs, sexual connotations, and mentions of weapons, drugs and alcohol” as well as any custom keywords provided by a given school’s athletic department. Although the software doesn’t necessarily require athletes to hand over their social media account passwords, it does require that they grant access. If this seems like it might be just a wee bit of an infringement on student athletes’ freedom of expression, that’s because it is.

The recent development on this is movement in some states to bar colleges and universities from requiring that student athletes share access to their social media accounts as a condition of participation in sports. The latest is a bill passed last week by the California legislature and awaiting the governor’s signature. The measure defines social media content broadly to include “videos or still photographs, blogs, video blogs, podcasts, instant and text messages, email, online services or accounts, or Internet Web site profiles or locations.” It prohibits any public or private educational institution from requiring that any student or prospective student…

(1) Disclose a user name or password for accessing personal social media.
(2) Access personal social media in the presence of the institution’s employee or representative.
(3) Divulge any personal social media information.

The California bill bars these schools from disciplining, suspending, expelling, or threatening same for refusing to comply with a request for social media account access or information. Sounds like an excellent approach.

Through a Freedom of Information request, the Courier-Journal reviewed hundreds of pages of flagged posts by athletes at the University of Kentucky, finding some tweets that clearly would reflect poorly on the school’s athletic program (I have some OxyContin. It will make you feel good. #drugs) but others caught in the inevitably clumsy trap of a imprecise keyword search (God is the only one who can heal me, help me & fight for me, flagged because of the word “fight”).

No one doubts that student athletes, like others kids that age, will say dumb things from time to time that the university might reasonably wish they hadn’t said. Social media broadcasts those lapses of judgment to a wider audience. But as Ken Paulson of the First Amendment Center in Nashville points out,

Coaches who impose blanket bans or chill players’ speech by watching everything they post are not doing their athletes any favors. The handful of athletes who go on to professional sports will have to deal with social media throughout their careers, and they won’t learn anything if they’re not given any latitude. The best approach is to give student-athletes the education they need to enter the workplace and to become well-rounded citizens. That includes the smart and responsible use of social media. There’s no better place to learn those lessons than in America’s high schools and colleges.

Well said.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.

Institutions and Ethics: Emory Shows Us How It’s (Not) Done

It would be hard to invent a better (or should I say worse) example of how institutional forces stifle ethical behavior than the reports on how Emory University has been reporting false admissions statistics for years. The university on Friday revealed the findings of its own three-month investigation:

The investigation revealed that both the University’s Office of Admission serving Emory College, and the University’s Office of Institutional Research, annually reported admitted students’ SAT/ACT scores to external surveys as enrolled student scores, since at least the year 2000. This had the effect of overstating Emory’s reported test scores. The report found that class rankings were also overstated, although the methodology used to produce the data was not clear.

And as the education industry site Inside Higher Ed reports, the misreporting was systemic and widely known within the university:

“We gleaned from the little we know that in these offices were a number of individuals who respected the lines of authority who were told by supervisors ‘This is the way we did it,’” said Provost Earl Lewis on a conference call with reporters. “That was noted and they went on with day-to-day business.” …. the practice spanned the tenures of at least two admissions deans and also involved the university’s director of institutional research. Staff members in those offices were also aware that the practice was taking place.

This is classic behavior in ethically challenged organizations: people in charge telling suspicious underlings that they shouldn’t worry their pretty little heads about actions they think don’t smell right because that’s how we do things around here. For its part Emory now seems fairly contrite, to judge by the university president’s public statement last week:

As an institution that challenges itself, in the words of our vision statement, to be “ethically engaged,” Emory has not been well served by representatives of the university in this history of misreporting. I am deeply disappointed.

Of course, contrite is one thing, and forthcoming is another. You might think that an institution renewing its dedication to being “ethically engaged” would have some mention of this scandal and a link to the university’s response on its home page. You’d be wrong.