As Grades Go Up, Wrong Things Are Learned?


A's for Everyone!

I think the big mistake in schools is trying to teach children anything, and by using fear as the basic motivation.
Fear of getting failing grades, fear of not staying with your class, et cetera.
Interest can produce learning on a scale compared to fear as a nuclear explosion to a firecracker.

- Stanley Kubrick

American University, Washington DC

by Alicia C Shepard

In an era of rampant grade inflation, some college students find it shocking to discover there are 26 letters in the alphabet...

It was the end of my first semester teaching journalism at American University.  The students had left for winter break.  As a rookie professor, I sat with trepidation in my office on a December day to electronically post my final grades.  My concern was more about completing the process correctly than anything else.  It took an hour to compute and type in the grades for 3 classes, and then I hit "enter."  That's when the trouble started.

In less than an hour, 2 students challenged me.  Mind you, there had been no preset posting time.  They had just been religiously checking the electronic bulletin board that many colleges now use.  "Why was I given a B as my final grade?" demanded a reporting student via email.  "Please respond ASAP, as I have never received a B during my career here at AU and it will surely lower my GPA."

I must say I was floored.  Where did this kid get the audacity to so boldly challenge a professor?  And why did he care so much?  Did he really think a prospective employer was going to ask for his GPA?  I checked the grades I'd meticulously kept on the electronic blackboard.  He'd missed 3 quizzes and gotten an 85 on 2 of the 3 main writing assignments.  There was no way he was A material.  I let the grade mar his GPA because he hadn't done the required work.

I wasn't so firm with my other challenger.  She tracked me down by phone while I was still in my office.  She wanted to know why she'd received a B+.  Basically, it was because she'd barely said a word in class, so the B+ was subjective.  She harangued me until, I'm ashamed to admit, I agreed to change her grade to an A−.  At the time, I thought, "Geez, if it means that much to you, I'll change it."  She thanked me profusely, encouraging me to have a happy holiday.

Little did I know the pressure was just beginning.

The students were relentless.  During the spring semester, they showed up at my office to insist I reread their papers and boost their grades.  They asked to retake tests they hadn't done well on.  They bombarded me with emails questioning grades.  More harassed me to change their final grade.  I began to wonder if I was doing something wrong, sending out some sort of newbie signal that I could be pushed around.  Then I talked to other professors in the School of Communication.  They all had stories.

My colleague Wendy Swallow told me about one student who had managed to sour her Christmas break one year.  Despite gaining entry into AU's honours program, the student missed assignments in Swallow's newswriting class and slept through her midterm.  Slept through her midterm!  Then she begged for lenience.  "I let her take it again for a reduced grade," Swallow says, "but with the warning that if she skipped more classes or missed more deadlines, the midterm grade would revert to the F she earned by missing it.  She then skipped the last 3 classes of the semester and turned in all her remaining assignments late.  She even showed up late for her final."  Swallow gave the student a C−, which meant she was booted out of the honours program.  The student was shocked.  She called Swallow at home hysterical about being dropped from the program.  To Swallow, the C− was a gift.  To the student, an undeserved lump of Christmas coal.

"She pestered me for several days by phone," says Swallow, who did not relent and suggested the student file a formal grievance.  She didn't.  "The whole exchange, though, made for a very unpleasant break.  Now I wait to post my grades until the last minute before leaving for the semester, as by then most of the students are gone, and I'm less likely to get those instantaneous complaints."

Another colleague told me about a student she had failed.  "He came back after the summer trying to convince me to pass him because other professors just gave him a C," says Leena Jayaswal, who teaches photography.  Never mind that he didn't do her required work.

John Watson, who teaches journalism ethics and communications law at American, has noticed another phenomenon: Many students, he says, believe that simply working hard - though not necessarily doing excellent work - entitles them to an A.  "I can't tell you how many times I've heard a student dispute a grade, not on the basis of in-class performance," says Watson, "but on the basis of how hard they tried.  I appreciate the effort, and it always produces positive results, but not always the exact results the student wants.  We all have different levels of talent."  It's a concept that many students (and their parents) have a hard time grasping.  Working hard, especially the night before a test or a paper due date, does not necessarily produce good grades.  "At the age of 50, if I work extremely hard, I can run a mile in 8 minutes," says Watson.  "I have students who can jog through a mile in 7 minutes and barely sweat.  They will always finish before me and that's not fair.  Or is it?"

Last September, AU's Center for Teaching Excellence hosted a lunchtime forum to provide faculty members tips on how to reduce stressful grade confrontations.  I eagerly attended.  The advice we were given was solid: Be clear upfront about how you grade and what is expected, and, when possible, use a numerical grading system rather than letter grades.  If the grade is an 89, write that on the paper rather than a B+.  "The key," said AU academic counsellor Jack Ramsay, "is to have a system of grading that is as transparent as possible."

Yet even the most transparent grading system won't eliminate our students' desperate pursuit of A's.  Of the 20 teachers who came to the session, most could offer some tale of grade harassment.  "Most of the complaints that colleagues tell me about come from B students," said James Mooney, special assistant to the dean for academic affairs in the College of Arts and Sciences.  "They all want to know why they didn't get an A.  Is there something wrong with a B?"

Apparently there is.  "Certainly there are students who are victims of grade inflation in secondary school," said Mooney.  "They come to college, and the grading system is much more rigourous.  That's one of the most difficult things to convey to the students.  If you're getting a B, you're doing well in a course."  But his interpretation is rarely accepted by students or their parents.  And the pressure on professors to keep the A's coming isn't unique to AU.  It's endemic to college life, according to Stuart Rojstaczer, a Duke University professor who runs a Web site called  At Duke and many other colleges, A's outnumber B's, and C's have all but disappeared from student transcripts, his research shows.

Last spring, professors at Princeton University declared war on grade inflation, voting to slash the number of A's they award to 25% of all grades.  At Harvard, where 1/2 the grades awarded are A's, the university announced that it would cut the number of seniors graduating with honours from 91% to about 50%.

Despite those moves, Rojstaczer doesn't think it will be easy to reverse the rising tide of A's.  He points out that in 1969, a quarter of the grades handed out at Duke were C's.  By 2002, the number of C's had dropped to less than 10%.  Rojstaczer, who teaches environmental science, acknowledged in an op-ed piece he wrote for The Post 2 years ago that he rarely hands out C's, "and neither do most of my colleagues.  And I can easily imagine a time when I'll say the same thing about B's."

Arthur Levine, president of Columbia University Teacher's College and an authority on grading, traces what's going on to the Vietnam War.  "Men who got low grades could be drafted," Levine says.  "The next piece was the spread of graduate schools where only A's and B's were passing grades.  That soon got passed on to undergraduates and set the standard."  And then there's consumerism, he says.  Pure and simple, tuition at a private college runs, on average, nearly $28,000 a year.  If parents pay that much, they expect nothing less than A's in return.  "Therefore, if the teacher gives you a B, that's not acceptable," says Levine, "because the teacher works for you.  I expect A's, and if I'm getting B's, I'm not getting my money's worth."

Rojstaczer agrees: "We've made a transition where attending college is no longer a privilege and an honour; instead college is a consumer product.  One of the negative aspects of this transition is that the role of a college-level teacher has been transformed into that of a service employee."

Levine argues that we "service employees" are doing students a disservice if we cave in to the demand for top grades.  "One of the things an education should do is let you know what you do well in and what you don't," he says.  "If everybody gets high grades, you don't learn that."

But, as I'd already seen, many students aren't interested in learning that lesson - and neither are their parents.  When AU administrator James Mooney polled professors about grade complaints, he was appalled to learn that some overwrought parents call professors directly to complain.  "One colleague told me he got a call from the mother of his student and she introduced herself by saying that she and her husband were both attorneys," said Mooney.  "He thought it was meant to intimidate him."

Though I haven't received any menacing phone calls from parents, Mom and Dad are clearly fuelling my students' relentless demand for A's.  It's a learned behaviour.  I know, because I'm guilty of inflicting on my son the same grade pressure that now plays out before me as a university professor.  Last fall when my Arlington high school senior finally got the nerve to tell me that he'd gotten a C in the first quarter of his AP English class, I did what any self-respecting, grade-obsessed parent whose son is applying to college would do.  I cried.  Then I emailed his teacher and made an appointment for the 3 of us to meet.  My son's teacher was accommodating.  She agreed that if my son did A work for the 2nd quarter, colleges would see a B average for the 2 quarters, not that ruinous C.  There's a term for the legions of parents like me.  The parents who make sure to get the teacher's email and home phone number on Back to School Night.  The kind who email teachers when their child fails a quiz.  The kind who apply the same determination to making sure their child excels academically that they apply to the professional world.  We are called "helicopter parents" because we hover over everything our kids do like Secret Service agents guarding the president.  (My son refers to me as an Apache attack helicopter, and he's Fallujah under siege.)  Only we aren't worried about our kids getting taken out by wild-eyed assassins.  We just want them to get into a "good" (whatever that means) college.

"Parents today have this intense investment in seeing their kids do well in school," says Peter Stearns, provost at George Mason University and author of Anxious Parenting: A History of Modern Childrearing in America.  "This translates into teachers feeling direct and indirect pressure to keep parents off their backs by handing out reasonably favourable grades and making other modifications, like having up to 18 valedictorians."

High school administrators who haven't made those modifications sometimes find themselves defending their grading policies in court.  Two years ago, a senior at New Jersey's Moorestown High School filed a $2.7 million lawsuit after she was told she'd have to share being valedictorian with another high-achieving student.  A similar episode occurred in Michigan, where a Memphis High School senior who'd just missed being valedictorian claimed in a lawsuit that one of his A's should have been an A+.  That hyperconcern about grades and class rankings doesn't disappear when kids finally pack for college.  Along with their laptops and cellphones, these students bring along the parental anxiety and pressure they've lived with for 18 years.

One of my students, Rachael Scorca, says that her parents have always used good grades as an incentive.  And they've continued to do so during college.  "In high school, my social life and curfew revolved around A's," explains Scorca, a broadcast journalism major.  "I needed over a 90 average in order to go out during the week and keep my curfew as late as it was.  Once college came and my parents couldn't control my hours or effort, they started controlling my bank account.  If I wasn't getting good grades, they wouldn't put money in my account, and, therefore, I wouldn't have a social life."

But most of my students tell me the pressure to get top grades doesn't come from their parents any longer.  They've internalised it.  "I'd say most of the pressure just comes from my personal standards," says Molly Doyle.  "It's also something I take pride in.  When people ask me how my grades are, I like being able to tell them that I've got all A's and B's."

During my 2nd semester of teaching, I received this email from a student who'd taken my fall class on "How the News Media Shape History" and wasn't satisfied with his grade.  He (unsuccessfully) tried bribery.  "Professor. I checked my grade once I got here and it is a B," he wrote.  "I have to score a grade better than a B+ to keep my scholarship and I have no idea how I ended up with a B.  In addition, to that I have brought you something from The GREAT INDIAN CONTINENT."  I invited him to come to my office so I could explain why he'd gotten a B, but after several broken appointments, he faded away.

Other students were more persistent, particularly a bright young man who'd been in the same class as the briber.  He'd gotten an A− and made it clear in an email he wasn't happy with it: "I have seen a number of the students from the class, and we inevitably got to talking about it.  I had assumed that you are a tough grader and that earning an A− from you was a difficult task, but upon talking to other students, it appears that that grade was handed out more readily than I had thought.  Not that other students did not deserve a mark of that calibre, but I do feel as though I added a great deal to the class.  I feel that my work, class participation, and consistency should have qualified me for a solid A."

When I ignored the email, he pestered me a 2nd time: "I know it's a great pain in the ass to have an A− student complain, but I'm starting to wonder about the way grades are given.  I would be very curious to know who the A students were.  While other students may have outdone me with quiz grades, I made up for it with participation and enthusiasm.  I really feel that I deserved an A in your class.  If I was an A− student, I assume that you must have handed out a lot of C's and D's.  I don't mean to be a pain - I have never contested anything before.  I feel strongly about this, though."

I shouldn't have done it, but I offered to change the grade.  My student was thrilled.  He wrote, "With grade inflation being what it is and the levels of competition being so high, students just can't afford to be hurt by small things.  I thought that you did a great job with the course."  But when I completed the required paperwork, the grade change was rejected by a university official.  Though no one questioned me the first time I did it, grades can be changed only if they are computed incorrectly.  "How fair is it to change his grade?" an assistant dean asked me.  "What about other kids who might be unhappy but didn't complain?"  I emailed my student to let him know that he would have to live with an A−.  "The gods who make these decisions tell me that they rejected it because it's not considered fair to all the other students in the class," I wrote.  "The grade you got was based on a numerical formula, and you can only change a grade if you made a mathematical error.  I'm sorry."

"That seems illogical to me," he emailed back.  "If a student feels that a grade was inappropriate and wishes to contest that grade, that student obviously must contact the person who gave it to them.  Who was I supposed to contact?  What was the process that I was to follow?  The lack of logic in all this never fails to amaze me!"  I told him whom to contact.  I'm not sure if he ever followed through, but I saw him recently and he smiled and stopped to talk.  Nothing was mentioned about the grade.

The day before this spring semester's grades were due I bumped into another professor racing out of the building.  What's the hurry? I asked.  She told me she had just posted her grades and wanted to get off campus fast.  But she wasn't quick enough.  Within 8 minutes, a B− student had called to complain.  A few hours after I entered my final grades, I got an email from a student, at 1:44am.  She was unhappy with her B.  She worked so hard, she told me.  This time, though, I was prepared.  I had the numbers to back me up, and I wouldn't budge on her grade.  No more Professor Softie.

Alicia C Shepard is a journalist-in-residence at American University and is working on a book about Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Source: Sunday 5 June 2005; W19 © The Washington Post Company

Pupils "Should Mark Teachers"

by Selina Mitchell

High school students should be able to rate their teachers just as their teachers rate them at the end of an academic year, Democrats leader Lyn Allison suggested yesterday.  Most teachers had little feedback on how effective their teaching was or what students thought of them, she said.  Democrats research, released yesterday, showed there were still "alarming" rates of bullying at schools and that students were concerned about the quality of teaching they received.  But they were unconcerned by the low number of male teachers in the system.

"I think students are the best ones to be able to criticise teachers," Senator Allison said.  "They are with them during the school day and they observe the practice and they know whether they are learning or not."  She said the practice of rating people based on how well they did their job was "routine" in business.  Australian Council of State School Organisations executive director Terry Aulich backed the call.  "It does not have to be across the whole system," he said.  "You could have each teacher receive an evaluation from the students about how they are teaching that particular group."

Australian Education Union federal president Pat Byrne said honest feedback could be productive for teachers and students but that a "tick the box on a scale of one to five" system would be dangerous and demeaning.

Senator Allison released a Democrats survey of Year 11 students conducted last September that found 70% of students believed bullying was still a problem at their school.  Many students said their teachers were required to take subjects they were not qualified to teach and that teachers were spending more time dealing with problem students than teaching the lessons.  In the poll, 66% of students said their teachers were "mostly good", while a quarter said only half the teachers were good.

Better teacher training could alleviate some of the issues, Mr Aulich said.

Ms Allison, a former teacher, said she understood that it was a difficult job but that it was necessary to question what made good teachers and whether their training was adequate.  Students did not share Education Minister Brendan Nelson's concerns about getting more male teachers in classrooms, she said.  "A very small percentage, 17%, said they wanted to see more male teachers," she said.  "They are not worried."

Source: from The Australian 29 July 2005

See also:

bulletGrade Inflation (an external site) - "...the resurgence of grade inflation in the 1980s principally was caused by the emergence of a consumer-based culture in higher education.  Students are paying more for a product every year, and increasingly they want and get the reward of a good grade for their purchase.  In this culture, professors are not only compelled to grade easier, but also to water down course content.  Both intellectual rigour and grading standards have weakened...

On Mutual Admiration Societies

Regarding the above two articles...

My two sons and I are all full-time university students right now.  I have watched students wheedle teachers for undeserved grades - and often get them - many times.  I spend long hours studying for the grades I get and resent that all some students have to do is ask and they shall receive.  Ah well - it is I who leave the class with more in the long run.

I think the reason for grade inflation is primarily centred around the student evaluation reports, which student must typically fill out for adjunct professors every semester, and every 3 to 5 years for tenured professors.  The key problem is that while the forms were designed to ask the question, "Did you learn?", students almost never answer that - instead they answer the very different question, "Did you have to work hard?"  The answer to these two questions are, of course, usually negatively correlated.

Worse, as teachers grow in seniority and achieve tenure, the system becomes increasingly worked.  Strict professors who assign homework, expect extensive class participation, and demand rigorous thought will usually do a very good job teaching the assigned material - but are generally not appreciated by the typical student.  Because of this, as they get poor evaluations and full tenure is delayed or denied; many eventually leave to pursue more rewarding fields where competency (rather than pandering) is key.  In contrast, professors who are happy to grant extensions, raise grades, fudge numbers, add trivially easy extra credit questions, assign very little work, and give easy exams do not tend to inspire actual learning - but do tend to get glowing student evaluation reports.  Thus these mediocre professors often end up with tenure - and sometimes (far too often) even the departmental chairmanship.

Some professors go even further - by either cynically recognising the dynamics of the system and exploiting them (for example, ensuring that in the fortnight before evaluations no quizzes are given and by generally being as easy on the students as possible), or worse - by cheating.  A few professors make pointed references to taking the evaluations home to scrutinize - student know that their grade will be immediately affected by what they write.

The school administration may say anonymity is guaranteed - and, in any case, the evaluations are supposedly not shown to professors until after the term is safely over and the student no longer in the class.  The student is urged to be candid.  But there is enough information on the form for any professor to figure out who made a negative remark (academic major, expected grade, handwriting and more).  The following day after the evaluations are completed, students who were critical may be put on notice that their evaluation remarks were not appreciated.  And the forms are filled just before finals.  You do the math.

So - we have a mutual admiration society going in some schools - if the students inflate their evaluations, the professor often reciprocates.  Everybody benefits - short term.  No one, student or professor - nor even school administration - wants bad marks for anyone.  So accomplishment flies out the window, everyone strokes everyone else and we all are happy and well fed.

See also:

bulletLet Me Echo That (farther in this section) - for the conclusion to our academic career at this school (actually, I would recommend reading the whole page there)...

Students Say High Schools Let Them Down

Some high schools are too easy...

by Michael Janofsky

Des Moines - A large majority of high school students say their class work is not very difficult, and almost two-thirds say they would work harder if courses were more demanding or interesting, according to an online nationwide survey of teenagers conducted by the National Governors Association.  The survey also found that fewer than two-thirds believe that their school had done a good job challenging them academically or preparing them for college.  About the same number of students said their senior year would be more meaningful if they could take courses related to the jobs they wanted or if some of their courses could be counted toward college credit.

Taken together, the electronic responses of 10,378 teenagers painted a sombre picture of how students rate the effectiveness of their schools in preparing them for the future.  The survey also appears to reinforce findings of federal test results released on Thursday that showed that high school seniors made almost no progress in reading and math in the first years of the decade.  During that time, elementary school students made significant gains.

"I might have expected kids to say, 'Don't give us more work; high school is tough enough,'" said Governor Mark Warner of Virginia, a Democrat and chairman of the governors association.  "Instead," he said, "what we got are high school students actually willing to be stretched more.  I didn't think we'd get much of that."  The governors' survey was conducted as part of the association's effort to examine public high schools and devise strategies for improving them.  Mr Warner has made high school reform his priority as chairman of the association.  His term is ending and Governor Mike Huckabee of Arkansas, a Republican, is succeeding him.

While a vast majority of respondents in the survey, 89%, said they intend to graduate, fewer than two-thirds of those said they felt their schools did an "excellent" or "good" job teaching them how to think critically and analyse problems.  Even among the remaining 11%, a group of 1,122 that includes teenagers who say they dropped out of high school or are considering dropping out, only about 1 in 9 cited "school work too hard" as a reason for not remaining through graduation.  The greatest percentage of those who are leaving, 36%, said they were "not learning anything," while 24% said, "I hate my school."  Experts in education policy said the survey results were consistent with other studies that have shown gaps between what students learn in high school and what they need for the years beyond.  "A lot of business people and politicians have been saying that the high schools are not meeting the needs of kids," said Barbara Kapinus, a senior policy analyst for the National Education Association. "It's interesting that kids are saying it, too."

Marc Tucker, president of the National Council on Economic Education, an organisation that helps states and school districts create programs that are more tailored to contemporary student needs, said he did not believe that American high schools could adequately prepare students without a fundamental change in how they operated.  Mr Tucker said American schools had been too slow to adapt high school curriculums to the real-life demands of college and the workplace.  Except for that small fraction of highly motivated students with an eye toward prestigious private colleges and state universities, many more students, he said, are under the impression that just having a diploma qualifies them for the rigours of college and the workplace.

Source: 16 July 2005

Study Great Ideas, but Teach to the Test

We class schools into four grades: leading school, first-rate school, good school and school.

- Evelyn Waugh

by Michael Winerip

Grand Rapids, Michigan - Becky Karnes, a high school English teacher, recently completed a graduate-level writing course that she loved at Grand Valley State University.  "The course taught us better ways to teach writing to kids," said Ms Karnes, a 16-year veteran who is finishing up her master's degree.  "It showed you ways to stretch kids' minds.  I learned so much, I had my eyes opened about how to teach writing."  Ms Karnes learned all sorts of exercises to get children excited about writing, get them writing daily about what they care about and then show them how they can take one of those short, personal pieces and use it as the nucleus for a sophisticated, researched essay.

"We learned how to develop good writing from the inside, starting with calling the child's voice out," said Ms Karnes, who got an A in the university course.  "One of the major points was, good writing is good thinking.  That's why writing formulas don't work.  Formulas don't let kids think; they kill a lot of creativity in writing."  And so, when Ms Karnes returns to Allendale High School to teach English this fall, she will use the new writing techniques she learned and abandon the standard 5-paragraph essay formula.  Right?  "Oh, no," said Ms Karnes.  "There's no time to do creative writing and develop authentic voice.  That would take weeks and weeks.  There are 3 essays on the state test and we start prepping right at the start of the year.  We have to teach to the state test (the Michigan Educational Assessment Program, known as MEAP).  MEAP is not what writing is about, but it's what testing is about.  And we know if we teach them the 5-paragraph essay formula, they'll pass that test.  There's a lot of pressure to do well on MEAP.  It makes the district seem good, helps real estate values."

In Michigan, there is added pressure.  If students pass the state tests, they receive $2,500 college scholarships, and in Ms Karnes's middle-class district, families need that money.  "I can't see myself fighting against MEAP," she said.  "It would hurt my students too much.  It's a dilemma.  It may not be the best writing, but it gets them the money."

In this fashion, the 5-paragraph essay has become the law of the land: introductory paragraph; 3 supporting paragraphs each with its own topic sentence as well as 3 supporting ideas; and summary paragraph.  Students lose points for writing a one-sentence paragraph.  Many English teachers have developed a standard 5-paragraph form with blanks to fill in.

Topic sentence ________________________________________________
Literary example ________________________________________________
Historical example ________________________________________________
Current event ________________________________________________
Concluding sentence ________________________________________________

The National Council of Teachers of English has warned that standardised state tests mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind law, as well as the College Board's new SAT writing sample, are actually hurting the teaching of writing in this country.  For their part, the makers of these tests emphasise that they don't mandate a writing formula, and they, too, say it would be a mistake if schools taught only by the formula.

But Nancy Patterson, the Grand Valley professor who offers the popular course for teachers here, says in the face of those tests, teachers cling to the formula and it spreads like kudzu.  "A lot, particularly the younger ones, have been raised on the 5-paragraph formula, and are insecure about their own writing," she said.  "They drink up what we do here, but then go back to teach to the test.  It shuts them down.  It narrows the curriculum."

"If you give kids the formula to write an essay, you're taking away the very thinking that a writer engages in," she said.  "Kids are less apt to develop a writer's thinking skills."  And it is spreading downward.  In preparation for the 4th-grade state writing test, she said, she sees 3rd-grade teachers pressed to use the 5-paragraph formula.  A teacher in Dr Patterson's class described her frustration over a practice essay test in her district asking 3rd graders to "defend or refute from a patriotic standpoint" whether a friend should go to a Memorial Day parade.  "For 9-year-olds?" said Dr Patterson.  "Defend or refute?"

Dr Patterson has her teachers write in every class - something she did with her students during 29 years in the public schools.  They draw maps of their neighbourhoods, then write a story of something that happened there.  They envision a character they'd like to create, make a paper doll of it, then pair up with another student and together write a story with the two characters interacting.  "You're teaching them narrative - how to tell stories that are dear to them," she said.  She has them read good essays that start a hundred different ways - with a quote; a question; a simple declaration of a problem; a run-on sentence; a word or two.  There are lessons on how a writer blows up an important moment and how to turn a personal piece of writing into a researched essay.

Recently, Kristen Covelle, 24, has been going on interviews for English teaching jobs.  She mentions exciting things she's learned from Dr Patterson.  "The interview will be going great," Ms Covelle said, "and then MEAP will come up.  They want to know will I teach to the test, that's what they're looking for.  They asked how I feel about using "I" in writing.  Would there ever be a case when "I" is appropriate in an essay.  I knew the answer they want - you're not supposed to use it.  But I couldn't say that.  I said there could be times, you just can't close the door.  They didn't say anything but it was definitely the low point of the interview."

Becky Karnes isn't totally against the formula.  "For kids struggling, if you can give them a formula and they fill in the blanks, some will pass the MEAP test who wouldn't otherwise," she said.  "But it turns into a prison.  It stops you from finding a kid's potential."  She loves the last month of school, when state tests are over, she said.  Last spring she did lessons on poetry and writing short stories.  "I found interests and talents in those kids I didn't know were there," she said.  "It would have been nice to have a whole year to build on those things."


Source: 13 July 2005

Essay Test: The Young and the Terse

To the Editor:

Re "Study Great Ideas, but Teach to the Test," by Michael Winerip (Education page, July 13):

It is argued that standardised writing tests hurt the teaching of writing because teachers are forced to use the 5-paragraph formula to help students pass even though it kills creativity and doesn't let them think.  The 5-paragraph formula is not ideal; it's not even the ideal formula, but it's better than nothing.  So, too, with standardised writing tests.

Let's be honest: Because of the No Child Left Behind Act's testing requirement, kids are writing more, the key to improving writing skills, because if they don't, they fail the standardised test.  American society places great emphasis on individual liberty and intellectual creativity, but students can't be great creative writers if they are not technically competent.

Strong writers don't need to use the 5-paragraph formula; low-proficiency writers, and most school students, are better off using the defective 5-paragraph formula than nothing.

Matt White
Swarthmore, Pennsylvania
13 July 2005

The writer is director of the Writers Lab, a company that offers resources, books and training to improve results on the essay section of standardised tests.

To the Editor:

Michael Winerip cites the dilemma that many teachers face when they think they must teach the 5-paragraph essay format for their students to be successful on standardised tests that include essay writing.  The College Board believes that students who follow this format may be denying themselves opportunities to write to their full potential.

The SAT essay is carefully designed to measure a student's mastery of many different elements of writing, with prompts to stimulate critical thinking about complex issues.  Critical thinking involves dealing with the complexity of an issue, not oversimplifying in the rush to produce an introduction, 3 "fitting" examples and a conclusion in 25 minutes.  In fact, students may be more likely to demonstrate critical thinking if they give one or two extended examples, taking the time to explain interactions between ideas.

Students will be better prepared for college writing success by learning formats that go beyond the 5-paragraph essay.

Kathleen Williams
Vice President
Office of Academic Initiatives and Test Development
The College Board
New York
13 July 2005

To the Editor:

"Study Great Ideas, but Teach to the Test" illustrates a dilemma: the needs of students to learn standard forms of communication sometimes interfere with what teachers love to do (teach creative writing).  But just as there is a place for dessert in a well-balanced meal, there is a place for creative writing in a well-balanced curriculum.  In both instances, that place is usually toward the end - after the part that is less delicious but more nutritious.

The point is furthered by the fact that creativity by definition involves playing with conventions.  Therefore, one cannot be creative without some level of mastery of the conventional.

K - 8 may be a time during which the educational needs of children allow for less creative writing than some might like, especially for those children who have not yet been properly nurtured with regard to constructing the standard 5-paragraph essay.

Paul Strand
Richland, Washington
13 July 2005

The writer is an associate professor of psychology at Washington State University.

To the Editor:

Michael Winerip is concerned that formulaic writing strategies impede the development of students' thinking skills.  I share his concern but question his diagnosis.  The "5-paragraph essay" is not the root of the problem; in fact, it's a reasonably good way to develop a little facility handling supporting evidence.  Like training wheels, the 5-paragraph essay has its place.  The real question is how to help kids move beyond it.

Creative departures from the 5-paragraph formula should be encouraged, but there is little evidence that creative flights, as such, impart clarity, depth or cogency of thought.  The ability to organise and evaluate reasons (logic) was once the centerpiece of a good education.  Sadly, it has been displaced by content-centred courses: courses that teach kids what to think rather than how to think.  The solution is a return to thinking-skills instruction.

Andrew Norman
14 July 2005

The writer develops thinking-skills curriculums for high school students.

Source: 17 July 2005

My personal opinion?  Being too rigid about anything is probably wrong.  The strict 5-paragraph essay is easier to grade - the professor can do it on autopilot...

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