In a story on page one today, we find that Winona Senior High School has lowered its grading scale. This is after only three years of using the last change to the grading scale, in 2008. Rightly, I believe, previous school boards were troubled that such a huge percentage of the students at the high school ended up on the A and B honor rolls. In the grade scale that they instituted then, student performance fell more naturally into what is called the bell curve.
What that means is that in the classroom, student performance usually finds the greatest number of students falling into the average range, with fewer right above that, and the fewest at the very top and very bottom. So, educators have reasoned for many years, a “C,” or average grade, would be assigned to the average performance, “B” and “D” to either side of that, and “A” and “F” at either end of the spectrum.
In the old grading system, if a student earned a 76 to 85%, that would be assigned a “C.” But now, under the new grading system, a student would earn a “C” for anything between a 70 and 79%. What this does is to allow students to perform at a lower level and still earn a “C,” to do work that just last year was “D” work and now earn a “C,” or do what used to be “C” work and now earn a “B.”
School Board member Ben Baratto, a retired Spanish teacher, objected to the change, and I couldn’t agree with him more. Baratto pointed out that “Students will work up to whatever level you put on them,” he said. “We’ve all heard the word rigor. I look at this scale and I wonder if there’s any rigor.” That makes a great deal of sense. If a student wants to be on the A or B honor roll, he knows he has to work harder. Except when you tell him he can have an A or B without working harder, which is what lowering the grading scale says loud and clear.
The rationale for easing the requirements for good grades is, according to the assistant principal at the high school, Mark Anderson, that students need a higher grade point average to be able to get into college. Most of us would say to the student, as any good teacher or parent would, “Well, if you want a good grade, and to get into college, you have to work for it.”
Does making students look better on paper so they can get into college change the reality that they are in fact “C” or “D” students? Will these students do better in college because they had a better report card in high school? Not according to the Alliance for Excellent Education brief of 2011. “Remedial education—courses designed for postsecondary students on basic skills that they did not master in high school—costs the United States an estimated $5.6 billion according to a new brief by the Alliance for Excellent Education. This figure represents the cost associated with students enrolled in two- or four-year institutions during the 2007–08 school year who had taken one or more remedial courses while in college. It includes $3.6 billion in direct remedial education costs and an additional $2 billion in lost lifetime wages because students enrolled in remedial courses are more likely to drop out of college, which in turn, significantly reduces their earning potential.
“Over one-third of college students need to take remedial courses — and sometimes courses so basic that they can’t begin their intended majors without them.”
Lowering the grading scale at Winona Senior High School does a disservice first of all to students and parents, who are tricked into thinking they are “A” or “B” students — honor roll students — and then are shocked when they can’t perform well enough on the SAT or ACT college entrance exams to get into college, or when they get to college, find out they are not prepared.
Secondly, lowering the grading system is a disservice to colleges, employers, and taxpayers. We all expect that a student’s grades reflect actual achievment. We also are being asked to pay for the same basic education for one-third of college freshmen twice. We pay first for the student in high school, and then again in college.
“We need to celebrate when kids do well in school,” Mark Anderson said. “I think we want kids on the honor roll.”
I think we want them on the honor roll if they truly deserve to be and have worked hard to get there. I think we want to celebrate real achievement, not a sham manufactured by the high school administration — for whom?