Sunday, November 14, 2010

Northern VA high school (West Potomac HS) replaces most "F" grades with "incompletes"; is this "fair"? A desirable experiment? Echoes from my own past (there); also, mercy for cheaters!

A Fairfax County VA high school just outside the Alexandria, VA city limits, West Potomac High School (site), is trying an interesting experiment. The school is giving few “F’s” for quarter grades, but rather changing them to “I’s” (incomplete) showing students owe work.

Donna St. George has the story on the front page of The Washington Post on November 14, 2010, link here. The  implication is that students could retake tests that they have failed. There are implications in the area of “fairness”, certainly when compared to older paradigms for student grading, which affect college admissions and, when I was coming of age in the 1950s and 1960s and there was a military draft and student deferments.

The story has additional meaning for me because I substitute taught there in 2004 and 2005. In the spring of 2005 I had a set of Honors and AP Chemistry sections about seven times (my forte is math), and saw the exams, which were interesting in this respect: for multiple choice questions, students had to state a reason for the choice for full credit. The exams were structured in such a way that every student had to show mastery of each subtopic.

This reminds me of practices in some college courses. At George Washington University in the spring of 1962 when I took Qualitative Analysis, the professor had a rule that you had to pass lab and lecture separately to pass the course; he said that one reason was that many students “couldn’t work the problems” (on equilibrium and concentrations of solutions).

The school was interesting in having such an extreme range of student ability and work ethic. In AP Chemistry, the students had a project to make a senior documentary short film in a film lab on campus. The “kids” invented a new element for the Periodic Table, “Reltonium”. (I guess I could review it on my movies blog; it was actually more like an Andy Samberg SNL skit.)

A couple times I showed the film “Copenhagen” (see my drama blog, Nov. 12, 2006) based on Michael Frayn’s play about a hypothetical WWII meeting between Niels Bohr and Werner Heisenberg, about the ethics of publishing (or self-publishing) scientific discoveries that could wind up in the hands of one’s enemies. (We also showed the film “Outbreak” related to novel pandemics.)

The school does have a new principal, Clifford Hardison.

There was an incident at the school in which I was involved in October 2005. I give the details on another blog posting on the “BillBoushka” blog, July 27, 2007. (To find it, navigate to my Blogger Profile [extreme bottom left], which lists all my 16 blogs.) There was a lot of “bizarre coincidence” involved in the incident (some of it involving newspaper editorials that appeared about the time concerning bloggers and campaign finance reform, and the First Amendment), and even though I am no longer subbing, I would appreciate the opportunity to sit down with school officials and sort this incident out some day. (My last assignment there was Dec. 8, 2005, just before a snowstorm; I remember overhearing a kid in one of the chemistry classes say “that’s the ‘gays in the military guy’. I guess I already had an “online reputation.”) We could all learn something.

I returned to subbing in January 2007 and stopped after one semester for unrelated reasons. I’ve only visited one school campus since then, on December 1, 2008 when ABC’s Weather team visited Wakefield High School in Arlington for a presentation (written up on my “drama blog” that date). Perhaps Doug Hill and Adam Caskey will do the same show ad WPHS some day (and talk about solar "coronal mass ejections" predicted in 2012). It’s a small  -- and sometimes dangerous -- world.

Update:  Nov. 18: The same Washington Post reporter writes on the front page this morning, "Giving Cheaters Another Chance?", that the new West Potomac High School principal has announcted a policy allowing students caught cheating (perhaps plagiarizing) to retake the test or redo work in some cases.  The principal says that cheating is a "disciplinary" matter, not an "academic" one.  I think a lot of universities would disagree.

When I was a graduate assistant instructor in Math at the University of Kansas in 1966, I gave an "F" in the course to a student whom I had seen copying answers on an algebra test and could prove cheating by comparing free response answers. He actually came to my dorm room to ask for another chance and said he was worried about what would happeb to him if he were drafted.  Later, in the fall of 1967, the administration would mention concerns over the draft to assistant instructors in matters of grading!!

Update: Nov. 20:  Now the Post reports that the West Potomac High School principal has cancelled the "no Fs" (in both incomplete and cheating situations) policies, out of parental objections. However the school is insisting that it maintain a fine-tuned "learning by objectives" policy, very much as had been implemented before 2005 on those "notorious" Honors Chemistry multiple choice tests.  (Think about it: why does our staying alive depend on both sodium and potassium, when both have the same valence?  Imagine your next multiple choice question on electronegativity, kids!  You'll need to know this in medical school!)

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