A Post Secondary Future

So we’ve all heard that it’s our job in school to get kids ready for the real world, specifically in the case of our graduates we must get them ready for university.  But what if we need to prepare them for something that really isn’t fair.

A friend of mine happens to be the parent of a university student and sent me a series of emails.  It began with this one from those teaching the class to their students about the final exam they had just written.  Now I don’t have any experience teaching University level courses, but this teacher/professor seems to spend a good deal of his email trying to justify why his marks are as low as they are…..but see for yourself.

Hi Everyone

Dr. “Smith” and I have finished our marking and have done some analysis on the questions.  

The regular semester grades (those we gather prior to the final exams, and particularly the assignments like JiTTs and clickers) are typically higher than we’d normally be comfortable with but the comprehensive final tends to even things out.  Analysis of the questions on the final show that they conformed to the curriculum.  For all final exams this semester, at least one person scored 100% on each question.  We take this as a sign that the exam was “do-able”.  It’s typical for this course that the final exam will sometimes bring down the course score, and we carefully watch the overall average for the course with the view that the grades seem most appropriate to the students.  The average this year was 67% but since 43% of the class scored in the “B” range, the average under-represents the most common performance.  Students who we noted consistently performed at an outstanding level seem in line to receive an “A”.

For my exam, some averages on certain questions were lower than I’d like to see.  Notably, question about the Holliday mechanism of recombination the score looks very low (less than 50%).  This is largely due to the paragraph response being left blank, something that’s typical of paragraph responses for my final exams.  What’s also typical, though, is the very high average for the trihybrid cross.  This is weighted 50% higher than the paragraph response, which is deliberate to give everyone their best opportunities to score well on the final.  I’m usually approached about this time with a query about whether I’d consider curving up marks on the question with low scores, but nobody ever seems concerned with me curving down the questions that have high scores to approach an “average”.

The scores for each question on both Dr. “Smith’s” and my own exam are now available…..(website info deleted to protect privacy of students in the class).

Dr. “Smith” and I will meet on Tuesday to double check scores etc. prior to submitting the final grades to the registrar.  We wish you a pleasant and restful break.

Hmmmm…..ok.  Just off the top of my head I was filled with numerous questions.  To me I wanted to know….why are students leaving your paragraph answer blank and why do you apparently shrug your shoulders and just accept this.  based on this professor’s words he’s pretty much just come to expect it…..

And it seems to me that if 43% of your students got a B yet the class average was 67%, does this not mean that about 43% of your class scored a failing or near failing grade?  I’m no math genius but it seems to me that that’s how averages work…..or perhaps I’m wrong and some more mathematically inclined person out there will correct me.

Personally, as a a teacher, I would be devastated if nearly half of my students failed or came close to failing an assessment. But maybe that’s just me.  Perhaps I’m too soft.  I’d CERTAINLY be concerned if my A student suddenly wrote a failing exam!  What had gone wrong?  I’d be asking all kinds of questions of both my own teaching practice, the assessment itself, and of the abilities of my student.  How could I be so far off the mark?

Anyways….my friend’s daughter responded with this:

I just wanted to inquire if the grades posted for the final are confirmed
as official?

 I am really concerned about mine and how a 47% affects my final grade in
the class. I don’t feel it reflects my understanding of the course
material and in your email you mention that you will be reviewing before
making them official.

Obviously she didn’t do well.  My friend also informed me that in this particular class, a 47% “deflated” her daughter’s mark in the course from an A- to a D+.  And what about the argument that those with an A level course mark seeming to be in line for an A as a final mark.  Not this kid!  Was she the only one to suffer like this?  What happened to the monitoring of marks that they assured students about in the first email?  Were they not slightly concerned that their A- student failed the exam????

The professor responded with this:
Examinations are not a perfect tool to assess understanding, but no tool
is.  Similarly, many of the course components this year were
“non-punitive” assessments, such at the clickers and the JiTTs and thus
these are also not perfect assessment tools.  The “non-punitive” nature of
these components were intentionally designed this way to encourage student
participation in class and active “time-on-task” outside of class.
However, they tended to inflate the grades somewhat.  Dr. and I
will review the marks and finalize them this week. We won’t rule out an
adjustment to the final exam grades, but only if there are compelling
reasons to think that some portion of the exam was unfair. So far, there
is no indication of that.

Whoa….here’s where all kinds of warning bells went off with me.  I highlighted the parts of the response that raised warning flags in my mind.

I guess from an outsider perspective (and myself fully acknowledging a severe limit on my knowledge base here) it appears to me as though the class was made to be “fun” in order to get kids there and also doing things outside of the classroom but then they wrote a final that was not consistent with the rest of the way the course was evaluated.  Why?  For the expressed intention of “deflating” grades.

You know what they say: the higher you rise, the further you fall.  If I was a student in this class I would have been devastated.  And my friend’s daughter is a very academic student.  Make no mistake about it, the 47% she received was devastating.

What worried me was that she clearly expressed to her professor that it was not indicative of everything she had learned with that course.  The response?  Well if we think the exam we created specifically to lower student grades was unfair we’ll do something about your request.  Um……is it just me…..or have you pretty much already admitted the exam was unfair?

How can I do this to my students in middle school?  How can I lift them up with authentic and engaged learning only to crush them with an exam meant to show them what they DON’T know?

This is what I’m supposed to prepare them for?  Them someone needs to explain this to me because I just don’t get it…..

It seems to me if this is the experience I am to base my own teaching practice on, then this is what I must do to get my students ready for the realities of university.

1.  Design engaging tasks that encourage maximum participation.

2.  Have student feel successful with these tasks and earn high scoring grades.

3.  Crush them to death with a final assessment deliberately meant to take their feeling of success and crush it into the ground.

4.  Leave my students wondering what the hell just happened…..

Sorry folks,  I’m with you on the first two.  I just can’t bring myself to abide by the third which ultimately results in the fourth.  Someone out there tell me that this is “good quality learning”.  Anyone?


About Cherra-Lynne Olthof

I've been a middle school teacher for my entire career (which began in 2001). Like my students, I too am a life long learner. My goals include helping my students to achieve their goals, support them in their learning, and to encourage them to think "beyond the grade".
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One Response to A Post Secondary Future

  1. There are a lot of disturbing beliefs and assumptions about how children learn and how they should be assessed lurking behind our course outline and syllabus. You do a fantastic job of unearthing these myths for all to see.

    These are inconvenient conversations we need to all have far more often. Our schooling closets have a lot of skeletons.

    I’ll be sharing this widely. Thanks for sharing

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