Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Come to Rochester --- Our A's are Easier!

Rochester is considering a change in their grading policy for Advanced Placement courses. The idea is to lower the grading scale needed to earn an “A”, with the hope that more students will be more willing to take AP classes.

The highly respected Washington Post education reporter Jay Mathews took the Rochester ideas to his national audience:

Washington Post: Should we inflate Advanced Placement grades? (11/27/09)

I am quite certain that the idea is proposed with the best of intentions. But I just don't think lowering the bar is the right approach.

Be sure to read the comments posted by teachers and students… very insightful.

==> Mike.

I pasted the article below in case the link doesn't work.


Should we inflate Advanced Placement grades?

The Rochester Community public schools in Michigan do a fine job. Their leaders often have great ideas. But according to school board member Mike Reno, they are talking about doing something to their Advanced Placement courses that could be troublesome, even though I once thought it was a good idea. (Some people who know me say that is the very definition of a bad idea.)

Here is what Reno revealed in an email to me:

"Our district, in an effort to increase AP participation, is proposing to lower the grading scale for AP classes. The idea is based on the notion that kids in Rochester don’t want to take AP classes because they are afraid that the tougher work will lead to a lower grade, and they don’t want to damage their GPA for fear it will harm their college entrance chances. The district’s logic suggests by that lowering the grading scale, students will have a better chance of getting a better grade, and therefore be more willing to take the class.

"This is not their brainchild. They claim other districts are doing it. They are calling it internal weighting. They believe this is a better approach than grade weighting, where an A in an AP class would be worth, say, 5.0 instead of 4.0. The district argues that colleges strip off weighted grades, whereas an internal weight benefits the student during college entrance. (I believe grade weighting has value when calculating class ranking, vals, sals, top scholars, etc, but think colleges are free to recalculate anything they’d like). Am a crazy to think this is a bunch of nonsense?"

When I first began writing about AP in the 1980s, I saw some sense in AP teachers being somewhat easy on report card grades. You wanted kids to stick with the course. Since they would take an AP exam written and graded by outside experts, they would know eventually how close they were to a college standard. If the student got an A in the course but a 3 (the equivalent of a college C-plus) on the AP exam, that would be a useful wakeup call. I recalled that the AP teacher who inspired me to be an education writer, Jaime Escalante, was livid when another AP teacher gave Fs to a lot of students, leading them to drop the course.

But I later realized I had misunderstood what Escalante was doing. He graded his students pretty tough. He wouldn't flunk them because that would be too much of a turn-off, but if they were doing the kind of work that would get them a 3 on the exam, he came them a C, not an A, on their classwork. He understood that they needed to know BEFORE the exam what they were likely to get, so they would be motivated to work harder if they needed to catch up.

That is precisely what many AP and International Baccalaureate (the other popular college-level program in U.S. high schools) experts told me when I asked them about the Rochester idea. Roy Sunada, for many years a leading AP teacher and administrator at Marshall Fundamental High School in Pasadena, Calif., said none of his first reactions to undermining AP course grades were printable. "I will stand firm in my belief that artificial measures or grand-sweeping programs are not productive in encouraging students to seek academic rigor," he said.

Reno himself had good arguments against the Rochester proposal. "If AP in high school is not the time to introduce the real-life challenges to our youngsters, then when is the right time? Do we allow them to leave our community with high hopes and aspirations--and perhaps a false sense of their skills--only to get crushed in college when they are not prepared?" He also put in a good word for "the kids that really bust their humps and get real A grades and stay on top of the game. Don't they deserve the reward and distinction?"

On the other side was Trevor Packer, the College Board vice president
who directs the AP program. He thought the Rochester idea had merit. He called it "another, viable way to weight AP grades in ways that more fairly represent the level of achievement." He and other veteran educators also supported the extra grade point weighting system for AP and IB found in many districts. In Fairfax County, Va., for instance, a student who gets a C in her AP course will see that letter on her report card, but she will get an extra grade point for it, a 3.0 instead of the usual 2.0. That bonus, several teachers say, is important to students who know they are going to struggle in the course.

Erin McVadon Albright, the IB coordinator at Annandale High School in Fairfax County, said that was a powerful inducement for one of her most intriguing students. He came from a low-income family that did not even have an Internet connection at home. He wanted to play football, which meant he had to take a government class online over the summer to have time for IB. He was using the computer at the office where his mother was a receptionist, but she was afraid someone would complain. He almost dropped the course until Albright managed to lend him a school laptop which he could take the public library to do his work.

Jon Gubera, AP director for the Indiana education department, said "grades are the single most relevant academic currency for students. In my experience, the best way we were able to incent marginal students to take a leap of faith and join an AP course was through providing a weighted grade so as to reassure them that their overall GPAs would not be ruined by earning a C in an AP course."

Gubera had little problem with the Rochester idea. It reminded him of what happens on many college campuses--"a 70 percent on a final exam, for example, translates into an A in the course." He also thinks some AP teachers do similar internal weighting on their own, without any guidance from their districts. They will give the student working at the 3 level a representative C in course work leading up to the exam. But when they mark the final report card--weeks after the student has taken the AP exam--they will award extra credit and bump them up to a B.

Does that make sense? Grading in American high schools is like cage fighting. There aren't many rules. If there are AP or IB teachers out there with their own special tricks, post a comment here to educate the rest of us.