Monday, February 20, 2012

Dialing Hillsboro's Education Up To 11

After noticing that a new parent group has sprung up to protest recent changes to Hillsboro's grading policies, I began taking a look at what these policies are. The first policy pointed out to me was "balanced grading". Here's how it is described on the district website

This is not an indictment of how grades have typically been formulated and issued for years, but traditional grading practices have included both academic achievement and behavioral information. A 'traditional' grading scale is comprised of scores using a 100-point scale:
90-100 = A
80-89 = B
70-79 = C
60-69 = D
59 and below = F

In this scale, there are 59 ways to get an F and only 10 ways to get an A. ...

The first phase of implementation for the revised policy is to ensure all teachers are using balanced grading scales. This change will ensure that academic achievement is accurate and consistent throughout the district. A balanced grading scale is one where there are an equal number of points in each grading category: A, B, C, D, F.

While reading this, I couldn't help being reminded of a scene from the classic mockumentary This Is Spinal Tap, where the intellectually-challenged rock star describes his new guitar. "...and the volume goes up to 11!"  The narrator replies,  "Couldn't they have just made 10 louder?"   The perplexed star answers, "But this one goes to 11!"   The key insight that the musician seemed to miss was that changing how you label something doesn't change the underlying property you are labelling.

As I see it, the fairness of grades in any classroom is almost completely determined by the fairness and judgement of the teacher. Did Hillsboro previously have an epidemic of students unfairly failed due to 0s averaged into their grades? If a teacher notices the numbers trending oddly low or high for their class, haven't they always had the freedom to adjust the curve according to their judgement? And haven't they assigned weights properly to homework and tests so that grades reach reasonable levels at the end of each quarter? I sure hope so.

Requiring that teachers adjust their scales such that the A/B/C/D/F are "balanced" seems like a superficial reform that does not really solve any core problem.  If some teachers are giving too many low/high grades, or there is some class where grades are distinctly uncorrelated with other measures of achievement, that is something worth addressing. I would be quite surprised to find a teacher to be blindly following the numbers of the traditional system and excessively failing students as a result.

Claiming that it is "unfair" for F to cover half the grading scale also seems to miss another key point of the classical grading scale:  in order to pass a class, there is a general expectation that the student has absorbed at least half the material.    It is completely fair to have some minimal standard, and consider students to be failing if they cannot meet that standard.

But this "balanced grading" reform strikes me as a silly and annoying micromanagement of teachers by distant bureaucrats. If a teacher ultimately grades fairly and the students are determined to be learning successfully, does it really matter what numbers they used in their day-to-day scoring? I'm pretty sure this "balanced" system will be ultimately neutral in terms of student learning, but if I were teaching in the district, this kind of top-down interference in a trivial matter would certainly not help my morale.

(By the way-- there are other aspects of the grading reforms that are inspiring more serious opposition; I'll talk about those in a future blog post.)

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