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Standardized tests make for honest success indicator

This summer, a Louisiana professor’s experience with whining students was part of a provocative, and welcome, piece in the Wall Street Journal about the culture of entitlement that has developed among youth. If not by every student and their parents in the state, it should be read at least by those in Bossier Parish.

The article noted that American-born college students’ attitudes about being graded served as a microcosm of an attitude that everybody was “special,” that they all were “entitled” to rewards such as good grades because they “worked hard.” By contrast, when Asian students did not earn A’s, they didn’t ask to get bumped up to a grade for which they had no merited, but instead asked how they could improve their performances.

With that in mind, I wouldn’t suspect that any of the complaining parents and students who confronted the Bossier Parish School Board this summer came from an Asian immigrant family – first, some who complained they should graduate high school because they passed their classes even though they failed the state’s required Graduate Exit Exam, then others, who had disqualified themselves from parish school’s honor programs because they had not scored at a sufficient level on the state’s iLEAP exam.

What gets the parents’ dander up is their children do well enough in the classroom, only to fail to measure up on the standardized exams. Then somehow it becomes the fault of the exam itself, or the state or parish’s policy of having the exam score inflexibly as part of the overall assessment of the child, rather than it being the simplest explanation of all – the child didn’t do what was sufficient to merit the reward.

In both the graduation and honors cases, there is a presumption that the children merit the rewards because they do well enough in the classroom. But the truth is that exams likely are far more reliable indicators of the child’s true learning than the grades.

An anecdote: my wife graduated from Parkway with a 4.0 GPA, tied for valedictorian with one of her best friends. Her other best friend, the salutatorian, was a couple of tenths of points behind, and the next student was another tenth or so behind her. Almost 20 years later, last year my nephew graduated from Airline. Almost 20 in his class had a 3.9 or better, and the average GPA was close to a 3.0.

Have students become so much more brilliant and/or their teachers so much better in the interim to achieve so much higher GPAs? I think not, if you look at the Airline 2004 and 2005 GEE scores (representing that class), in the top two categories, only 27, 32, 28, and 14 percent of Airline rising juniors and seniors scored in them for English, math, science, and social studies, respectively. The dirty secret of GPAs in high school is that they have become inflated, not just in Bossier Parish, but statewide (and far more wildly in some schools where students get ‘A’ grades for poor quality work) because many teachers are reluctant to give lower grades because, with TOPS awards for college hanging in the balance, they don’t want to deprive students of these and/or don’t want to put up with the hassle from above and below for giving more honest assessments. And it trickles down to lower grade levels as well.

Of course, there’s also the oldest fall-back excuse in the book that somebody “doesn’t test well.” Never mind that in the larger real work world tests of one kind or another are always being sprung on you so if you aren’t ready for them in school you won’t go far out of it, but in the smaller academic world my experience has been the students who make this claim, that aspect aside, almost always turn out to be fairly weak students.

Probably Bossier Parish schools could tweak their program a little bit, like allowing students to be in an honors track in one area but not another (as did the schools I attended growing up), but one of their officials hit the nail right on the head when she said if more children were allowed to take honors classes, then there would not be a lot of academic role models in the classroom for other students. You don’t give rewards only because of hard work; you distribute them when the goal is reached regardless of the amount of work. Reasonable standards are there not to deny deserving students, but to motivate all of them.

Which means the state should continue to prevent graduation of those who cannot pass the GEE and the district should continue to deny honors classes to those who do not excel on the iLEAP subject exams. Perhaps if there were less time complaining and more time studying there might not be any problem.


Another Professor said...

Come on now, Jeff. You're right on target with the substance of this entry; I couldn't agree more. As a prof myself, I must interact on a daily basis with the "Entitlement" generation, and I've just about had enough. I'm seriously considering a very early retirement because my high standards seem to be out of style with these students.

However, is it asking too much to request that you do at least a little proof-reading before you publish to the web? I became so confused and annoyed by the form (mostly in terms of syntax) that your powerful and important message nearly got lost in the convolution! Because I am tenacious, I trudged on, but I fear that the typical reader may not persevere! Have you ever heard of comma splices? Your writing is littered with them!

Another Professor

P.S. BTW, I'm not a prof of English, so you can't get off the hook with that defense!

Jeff Sadow said...

I must admit, commas are my weakness, generally two few or too many of them. The sad thing is, my journalism career really led me to ruin on ths issue. This is because you are taught in journalism to write at such a simple level that is so devoid of the complex ideas that now I often get into that you have little need to even remember all the rules. I actually won regional awards for copy editing and headline writing when I was in college despite this.

My wife is the English professor and edits all my profesional publications, and she'll usually find a comma error every couple of pages or so even after I have thoroughly vetted the work, and even some others. However, I don't subject her to these postings which also suffer from the fact in a very short amount of space I try to tackle sometimes complex issues. When we do a paper, we can use all the space we want and our prose can be lengthy if that's what clarity demands. But I try to keep these postings between 250-750 words and it can get hard sometimes. Well, I'll try to do better.

Another Professor said...

How refreshing for you to actually admit that there is a problem and try to do better!

You sound like one of the Asian students whose goal is to improve rather than to convince a professor to assign an "A."

I really would like to use your "article" with my class on the first day of the spring semester--if nothing else it should be fodder for lively discussion. I guess I'm being naively optimistic to actually believe that they may ponder it beyond the time frame of that class period, but hope springs eternal, doesn't it?

Whatever the case, do you mind if I clean it up a bit (by editing, not revising) and make multiple copies? If I didn't, I fear that they would search for their red pens in retaliation for all the blood I've spilled on their papers!


Another Professor

Jeff Sadow said...

Sure, just be careful that the editing itself doesn't end up detracting from the overall message you want to send them.

On a related matter, awhile back I wrote a post which basically argued teachers need to step it up in the classroom rather than protesting for higher salaries. That drew a response from a teacher from the district I criticized (EBR) who wrote there were lots of factors involved in poor student performance, not just teacher quality and that teachers had enough burdens. The note had four obvious misspellings and other grammatical mistakes. I didn't have the heart to respond to that.

Good luck with it. Higher standards might make for more student (and, in my case, administrator) grumbling, but it never made them worse students.

Another Professor said...

Thanks, Jeff. I'll use extreme care in my editing.

I'm actually from BR, although I don't live there now. So...I am particularly distressed by the fact that teachers in EBR are slaughering the king's English. Unfortunately, this tendency is neither parish-nor even state-specific. It seems that non-conventional written language is running rampant regardless of the city, state, or educational level one considers. I certainly don't know quite what to do about it, except to continue to impose high standards on the very few teacher candidates on whom I have at least some influence.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, (tying this to your previous post in 2005) has the fact that Caddo requires it's highest rated schools (Magnet) to receive Title I status (and thus have 50% of high poverty level and not have to score as high on the tests for entry) affected the ability of these children to pass this test at the same level, and perhaps caused these centers for academic excellence fall into the same trap of "grade inflation"?

Are the Magnet schools (such as South Highland elementary) still required to desegregate "high poverty" and "affluent" in order to gain funding (Title I or otherwise)?

Do you feel there a different "entitlement mentality" from each of the socio-economic groups which could potentially further skew the differences in testing?


Jeff Sadow said...

I don't know on all of these, which are good questions. The answers may not be known by Caddo, perhaps because it may not wish to know these answers as they may confirm the disturbing implications you suggest.