Thursday, March 17, 2011

High Grades, but Cheap

One day as I walked into my son's high school, I was greeted by a large decorated bulletin board proudly displaying the names of the students that had achieved a 4.0 GPA during the previous term. The board was broken into sections by class. There was literally more than one hundred names listed in each section (for a student body of about 1,500).

I thought of my years attending the same high school. My name would never have appeared on such a list. Even after I escaped my history of C's in junior high school and learned to apply myself academically, I never got a report card that had straight A's. I had several that had a mixture of A and A– grades. But never straight A's. In fact, I could have counted on my fingers and toes the number of students in the school that achieved straight A's in any given term.

My son is very bright. He has a much higher cumulative GPA than I had at the same age. Yet he ranks as #128 in his class. My wife, who is much smarter than me, explained to my son that, although her GPA was .05 lower than his, she ranked as #26 in her graduating class (at a different high school).

If one were to compare simply the GPAs of the students in the classes from which my wife and I graduated and the students that will be graduating from my son's school in a couple of months, one would conclude that today's students are significantly smarter and/or harder working than were their parents at the same age.

I don't mean to sound envious, but such a conclusion frankly doesn't pass the smell test.

Years ago, the local high school gave out a pin for having been on the honor roll six times. I checked my old yearbook and saw that 137 of my class of 500 received this award. (My name is misspelled in the list.)

The school still gives this award, but it now requires eight terms on the honor roll. My son's graduating class will be about the same size as mine was. This morning I attended an award ceremony at the school where 209 members of the class were given the pin. The teacher conducting the ceremony indicated that many more would receive the award later this year. It looks like more than half of the graduating class will end up being on the honor roll at least eight of the twelve terms they will spend at the school.

Increasing the number of honor terms it takes to get the pin only gave the award a chimera of additional rigor. Tellingly, more than half of the award's recipients didn't even bother to show up to receive the honor this morning. Grade inflation has devalued the award to the point that it is rather meaningless.

Is this philosophy of lowering standards serving our students well? Achievements mean little when they come too easily. Or, as Thomas Paine put it in his essay, The Crisis, "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly: it is dearness only that gives every thing its value. Heaven knows how to put a proper price upon its goods...."

A generation of efforts to broaden educational achievement has instead cheapened the experience. This ill serves all students.

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