MAHERN: The unhitching of grades and knowledge

February 26, 2011

Louis MahernRecently, the Indiana Department of Education released high school graduation rates. Progress was proclaimed on all fronts. However, what does a high school diploma mean? Is it a safe assumption that a graduating student has received an education?

Starting a few years ago, Indiana schools were required to test students at the end of the semester to see just how much they had learned in Algebra 1, Biology 1 and English 10. Not whether they had turned in all their assignments or had participated in class or had behaved themselves, but how much knowledge of the subject matter had they had mastered. Were they able to demonstrate their ability to perform the calculations? Were they able to explain the principles?

The results of the End of Course Assessments are enlightening and disturbing. Statewide, over a third of the students who had just finished sophomore English failed to pass the English 10 ECA. Almost 40 percent failed the Algebra 1 ECA after having just finished Algebra 1. Over 60 percent of them failed the Biology 1 ECA.

Can you imagine the outcry if three out of every five Biology 1 students had actually flunked the course? Parents would be beating down the doors worried sick that this was going to sink any chance Johnnie had of getting into a good college.

Beginning with the class of 2012, high school graduation requirements will include the passage of algebra and English ECAs. Students failing the ECAs must be afforded remediation and another chance to take the exam. Successful completion of the biology ECA will not be required for graduation.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this is the apparent disconnect between how students do on the ECA and how well they did in the course. How is it possible, for instance, for 76 percent of Beech Grove students to pass Algebra 1 but only 47 percent pass the ECA? In what universe do 88 percent of North Central students pass Biology 1 but only 41 percent pass the ECA? At Southport, 15 percent flunked English 10 but 48 percent failed the ECA.

What are these students being graded on if not content knowledge? The ECAs are based directly on state standards. State education leaders have agreed that this is the material a student should know after completing the class. After all, isn’t that what we’re paying for? When a child comes home with a grade, is it too much to expect that it reflect how much he or she has learned?

Could it be that students are being graded on turning in homework on time? Homework is practice. It is designed to help the student acquire proficiency in the material. The question is mastery of the material, not whether the kid practiced. Can you imagine a band contest or a basketball game where points were awarded because the player was on time for all the practices?

Could it be that deportment is being figured into the grade? How about spotting the player five extra points because she didn’t mouth off during practice?

Why is this standard of proficiency applied in band and basketball but not academics?

Grades are signals to students, parents, administrators and teachers as to how a student is doing and when she is prepared to move on to the next level. It is no wonder that the folks who administer the ACT college-readiness exam found that only 24 percent of the students taking the exam in 2010 were ready to do college-level work in the four core areas of English, math, reading and science.•


Mahern has been an assistant to U.S. Rep. Andy Jacobs and U.S. Sen. Birch Bayh and served in the Indiana Senate. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.


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