Friday, November 07, 2008

School systems tackle inequities in grading systems and their effect on college applications

Inequities among grading scales in different public school systems, and how these affect college applications in a financially stressed world, is becoming an important issue. Michael Alison Chandler and Michael Birnbaum have a story on p B1, Metro, of today’s Washington Post. The story is called “Fairfax to address tough grading policy: school system will offer colleges comparisons of student performance,” link here.

The Fairfax County Public Schools (Virginia) system marks the letter grade points as 94, 84, 74, 64 (that is, 90 is a B+, 89 is a B). Loudoun County (Va) starts with 93, and Arlington goes 90-80-70-60, as do many Maryland jurisdictions. I graduated from the Arlington system in 1961, when the scale went 95-89-81-75. (Yes, 80 was a D+.) School systems also vary in how much extra value they give to AP and Honors Courses. Grade point averages (where 4.0 is perfect) seem to be lower in Fairfax than in other counties as a result, where as SAT scores are higher, which could convey the impression of student “laziness” unless the numbers are explained.

Colleges tend to use 90-80-70-60 for undergraduate courses. That isn’t bad in a course where problems on an exam are relatively straightforward. A mathematics, physics or chemistry final is likely to have a few large problem sets each divided into small parts. Typically, a student can miss a couple of smaller items and still earn an A. In graduate school, such a grading scheme becomes less realistic. In mathematics, on an exam, problems tend to be harder to motivate. Professors often offer a choice of problems to answer (“what you do know” rather than “what you don’t”).

Medical schools tend to rely heavily on multiple choice and grade on bell curves, sometimes resulting in scales that are higher than the usual 90-80-70-60. In specialized testing situations, applicants sometimes nearly have to get nearly perfect scores. For example, in Minnesota I had to get 100% on a multiple choice test on the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act before I could work as a debt collector. (Somehow, everybody passed!)

Although scoring of free-response or essay answers is itself an industry, certification an licensing exams tend to depend a lot on multiple choice, especially compound multiple choice tests. PRAXIS exams for teachers include both multiple choice and some free response, as does AP college credit from high school. Writing multiple choice test questions with “distractors” is itself a big business; I have worked at this once myself on a contract with a testing company. Perhaps I’ll do it again.

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