Tuesday, October 11, 2011

High school (and college) grading systems: I recall "90-80-70-60" as well as even "95-89-81-75". How did we survive high school?

Over the past few years, public school grading systems have attracted controversy.  Today, many schools use a scale of 90-80-70-60 which is common in undergraduate courses in college.

When I went to Washington-Lee High School in Arlington VA from 1958-1961 (graduated), the scale was 95-89-81-75.  That’s right, an 80 was technically a D.  I sometimes wonder how we survived, or how I did.
When I substitute-taught in the middle of the past decade, Arlington was back to 90-80-70-60, but Fairfax was using 94-84-74-64, making a 93 a B+.   That was said to be unfair to Fairfax County students seeking scholarships.  Teachers were not supposed to grade on the curve, either.

When tests are multiple choice (common these days in “teaching the test”), and there is no guessing penalty, it’s not quite so bad. 

But I remember the history course in junior year with exams mostly essay, usually 5 questions.  I got a 79 on the first test because I lost 15 points on a question about mercantilism (the teacher wanted us to understand how that undermined the ability of the colonists to have their own currency and forced them to be even more personally self-sufficient, a concept not easy to get at age 16, in a world where “grades” are the currency and you’re not on your own yet).

It seems to me that on a "reading quiz" with detailed (short answer but free response) questions about a literature reading assignment (whether "Lord of the Flies" or Shakespeare), a standard scale could downgrade a student quickly. (When an author proofs his own novel manuscript, a good way to read it is to ask oneself, "what would a high school English teacher ask on a reading quiz from this chapter?"  In college, we had "card quizzes".) 

In math and science, the grading gets to be more serious on tests that are “all problems”, which is what tests should be. (Get ready for the real workplace!)  In calculus, when I subbed, teachers sometimes split the test into two parts: the first part had to be done without a graphing calculator, presumably because many processes and formulas kids had to know (memorize) were on it. The first part had to be turned in before the second part, with the calculator.

In undergraduate, 90-80-70-60 was common. On a physics test at GW in 1963, there were 14 problems, all algebraic, and I recall the warning “answers will be graded right or wrong, no partial credit will be given.” But it was. I got a 95 (not a 93).  In calculus, once we got to integration, it got harder. I recall integration by parts and then by partial fractions, but some problems could be “hard to motivate”.  They could seem like chess problems: find a “mate in 5”.

In graduate school, an hour examination in math was a challenge for the professor to even make up.  Typically, there would be four or five problems similar to homework where the student had to apply two theorems he or she had learned in sequence to some fact pattern (sounds like law school now).  It was harder to do in 50 minutes to four problems than it sounds.  So professors had to curve.  I recall in “Analysis” (at the University of Kansas, 1966) on the first test, the median was a 54; I got a 57.  And anything below B doesn’t cut it. So 90-80-70-60 was finally history.

As a graduate assistant instructor, I got a rude awakening in 1966 as to how many "simple" problems students could work on a 50 minute algebra test. On the first quiz, I wound up adding 45 points to everyone's grade and then applying the "scale" but many students still gasped when I announced that. 

This week, six years ago, in 2005, there was a complicated and improbable incident involving me (as a sub) at a particular high school (West Potomac High School south of Alexandria, VA, in Fairfax County), the days of the week were the same that year as this; see posting Nov. 14, 2010 and on the “Bill Boushka” blog July 27, 2007.  What I think really happened behind the scenes would make the plot of a good "indie" movie. 

Here's a graphing calculator tutorial (there are many on YouTube):


P.S.

Here's an old college (Quant) chemistry test from 1963.  Study!
or this (earlier in the semester)

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