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Sunday, April 26, 2009

Dog Pack Follies, a chance to bay at the moon

CNN is preparing to compile a "report card" on the first 100 days of the new presidential administration. Bloggers are publishing hearsay and then chortling with euphoric glee about how they "scooped" the mainstream media. It is all symptoms of where the real failures of our educational system lie and of the deterioration of the intellectual culture.

Along with polls offered by members of the mass media on questions such as whether canines and felines should be allowed to intermarry, various media likes to grade government and social entities on their performance. For example, how would you grade South Dakota on same sex marriages. People in favor of same sex marriage would probably give it an F. People not if favor would probably give it an A or B. The grades of course are nothing more than expressions of how the state conforms to a particular set of prejudices. The grades have nothing to do with a carefully defined set of criteria and documented evidence as to how the state meets those criteria. They merely provide a chance to impose one's subjective prejudices on something.

This kind of use of "grades" has a deleterious effect on education. It assumes that grades given students are nothing more than a sign of how a student is perceived according to a teacher's prejudices. Sadly, there are teachers who do not base grades upon documented measurements of performance, But most do. And this gratuitous use of grades indicates that grading is merely the registering of opinion, not the assessment of performance based upon a carefully set of criteria.

Often when students or their parents protest a grade, they assume that the grade was assigned on some the basis of a personal bias. That's why careful and experienced teachers will haul out files of materials showing what the grade measured, how it was measured, and whether the grade was an indicator of how well the student performed in comparison with other students (the curve), or whether it was based upon established standards. Honest grades are not exercises in arbitrary judgment; they are grounded in competent, careful principles of measurement.

A misuse of grades is to use them as a definitive indicator of a student's work. While they do give information on performance, they also provide the most effective teaching moments. When students review a grade in terms of what their strengths and weaknesses are, that is the optimum time to give them opportunities to raise their grade. Too often, once a grade is issued, the attitude is that the student will have to live with it.

An altermative to grades is a narrative report of performance. In such a report, it first explains what the report covers and what specific work-evidence is examined, what criteria are used in evaluating the work, and a narrative summary of how the student engaged in the work. Such reports are arduous, time-consuming, and beyond the abilities of some teachers. But when done with care and competence, they provide the most effective assessment of work and they are invaluable for helping students set future work agendas.

What the Obama administration will be getting with CNN's report card is nothing but a rough profile of who likes him and who doesn't. It is an inane and futile exercise that suggests that uninformed and mindless opinions somehow have anything to do with competence and the successful solving of problems.

But that kind of baying at the moon and whining is what the political diaglogue has been reduced to.

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States