Caveat Emptor — whether in economics, or in the realm of values more generally, or in the realm of ideas.
Or in the realm of grades and education. Too many parents and students think good grades are measures of learning at a high level for that subject and grade.
I wish grades were a good, accurate measure of learning to reason, of learning the how and why of an idea, but unfortunately the parents and students are (somewhat) wrong about a grade’s meaning. (So, unfortunately, many students who should be getting private tutoring are missing out on it. Many students fail to learn to reason for the sake of having/getting “good grades.” I’d love to help, but the proverbial “horse” has to come to “water” on its own.)
Part of the problem lies with all of us for not doing our 3 Rs: reading, research, and reasoning. (But the school system did not teach us to do these three Rs!! The same system, we must admit, that is broken for our children was broken for us.) We usually take grades at face value — we don’t wonder what a grade means, we don’t inquire about standards of measurement, we don’t wonder what a class’ average was, we don’t wonder about grade distributions, we don’t wonder why so many students have to take remedial courses in college, we don’t care about a school’s philosophy of education (or know the value of it), etc. If we need to, we can add a fourth, fundamental R: reality.
We need to find answers to all these things and integrate all the individual answers into a broader, all-encompassing answer.
We need to do more research and make more demands about our child’s grades and learning — it’s too important to let slide.
But part of the problem is that parents and students are being misinformed. In “Fraud in Academia” (May 6, 2009, Townhall.com), Walter E. Williams says:
Academic fraud is rife at many of the nation’s most prestigious and costliest universities. At Brown University, two-thirds of all letter grades given are A’s. At Harvard, 50 percent of all grades were either A or A- (up from 22 percent in 1966); 91 percent of seniors graduated with honors. …
Some college administrators will tell us that the higher grades merely reflect higher-quality students. Balderdash! SAT scores have been in decline for four decades and at least a third of entering freshmen must enroll in a remedial course either in math, writing or reading, which indicates academic fraud at the high school level. A recent survey of more than 30,000 first-year students revealed that nearly half spent more hours drinking than study. Another survey found that a third of students expected B’s just for attending class, and 40 percent said they deserved a B for completing the assigned reading.
Possessing a college degree often does not mean much in terms of basic skills. According to a 2006 Pew Charitable Trusts study, 50 percent of college seniors failed a test that required them to interpret a table about exercise and blood pressure, understand the arguments of newspaper editorials, and compare credit card offers. About 20 percent of college seniors did not have the quantitative skills to estimate if their car had enough gas to get to the gas station. According a recent National Assessment of Adult Literacy, the percentage of college graduates proficient in prose literacy has declined from 40 percent to 31 percent within the past decade. Employers report that many college graduates lack the basic skills of critical thinking, writing and problem-solving.
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Update (12:15 PM): Added copyright notice. Changed the pronoun “they” to “we” and changed “parents and students” in one sentence to “we.” Added “proverbial” before “horse.” Added the two “we need to…” sentences. Added “about a grade’s meaning” after “wrong.”
Update (2:05 PM): Added the first two sentences. Added the fourth R.
Update (3:30 PM): I have not found the Pew Trust 50 percent figure Dr. Williams is talking about. You can download a pdf file of what I think is the report he is referring to, “The Literacy of America’s College Students,” if you want to see the questions, methods, and statistics for yourself. Maybe the 50 percent number works out over all the tests, but some passing rates for individual questions were in the 90s while some were in the 30s.
Update (7:35 PM): I had to run work; now I’m back home to eat dinner. I now see to what Dr. Williams is referring. One must look on page 13 to get a definition of terms and levels — below basic, basic, intermediate, proficient — and then on page 74 (appendix c) to see the percentages in each group. Dr. Williams seems to be referring to very few people being “proficient.”
The Pew document says on p 13 that “intermediate indicates skills necessary to perform moderately challenging literacy activities,” the characteristics of which were:
“■ reading and understanding moderately dense, less
commonplace prose texts as well as summarizing,
making simple inferences, determining cause and effect,
and recognizing the author’s purpose;
■ locating information in dense, complex documents and
making simple inferences about the information;
■ locating less familiar quantitative information and using
it to solve problems when the arithmetic operation is not
specified or easily inferred.”
And which were measured, respectively, by such things as:
“■ consulting reference materials to determine
which foods contain a particular vitamin;
■ identifying a specific location on a map;
■ calculating the total cost of ordering.”
Whereas, they say, “proficient indicates skills necessary to perform more complex and challenging literacy activities,” the characteristics of which were:
” ■ reading lengthy, complex, abstract prose texts as well as synthesizing information and making complex inferences;
■ integrating, synthesizing, and analyzing multiple pieces
of information located in complex documents;
■ locating more abstract quantitative information and
using it to solve multistep problems when the arithmetic
operations are not are not easily inferred and the problems are
And which were measured, respectively, by such things as:
“■ comparing viewpoints in two editorials;
■ interpreting a table about blood pressure, age,
and physical activity;
■ computing and comparing the cost per ounce
of food items.”
Update (5-8-09 8:10 AM): We can also read a recent literacy study: NAEP 2008 Trends in Academic Progress (NCES 2009–479).