Wednesday, February 02, 2005

Another Grading Policy

I heard about this on NPR this morning, and it's been knocking around in my head ever since. Benedict College, a historically-black college in South Carolina, has implemented a new "Success Equals Effort" grading policy for their freshmen and sophomores. Essentially, freshman year grades are based 40% on "acquired knowledge" and 60% on effort - seeking tutoring, attendance, turning in all assignments on time, taking all tests, etc. This means that a student could fail all the assignments but pass the class - perhaps even with a C - if they demonstrated good work habits. Sophomore grades are based 60% on acquired knowledge and 40% on effort. Two professors were fired for refusing to comply with the new grading policy when they felt that it was a lowering of their professional standards. The school explains that their school has an open admissions policy - meaning, they take anyone with a high school diploma - and many students from disadvantaged backgrounds or astonishingly bad high schools. They hope the SEE program will help teach struggling students what kinds of behaviors lead to learning and higher grades, and will help lower their drop-out rate and get more students to graduation. Junior and senior grades are based solely on acquired knowledge.

I have mixed feelings about this policy. It raises a lot of questions for me, so instead of taking one side or another, I think I'll just ask them here...

How does SEE affect the top students at Benedict? Could students who learn easily be penalized if they seem to put in less effort because they don't feel they need tutoring or because they skipped a class but learned the material from the textbook? Is there a ceiling (or "margin" in the economic sense) on effort?

What happens to the students who show good effort but still don't get the acquired knowledge? NPR gave an example of a student who failed EVERY assignment but got a perfect score for effort - so he ended up with a C in the class. That makes me wonder WHY this student's efforts didn't lead to improvement... Is it a time-lag issue, and his efforts will start to pay off in future classes? What's going on with the way the material is being taught that a student could have perfect work habits and still not even PASS? Is he just at the low end of the spectrum or learning disabled for that particular discipline? And what will happen to him when he's a junior and senior?

If it is a fact - which it is - that some elementary and secondary schools do an appalling job preparing students for college, and wishful thinking isn't going to change that fact for kids graduating NOW, then what IS the appropriate response to students who have a high school diploma from a crappy high school, want to attend college, but hit the wall in their freshman year? Are there options besides this one? Are there other ways to reward effort and teach good work habits that don't require professors to lower their grading standards?

And speaking of those professors, is there some percentage of the grade that they would be willing to base on effort? What does the percentage have to be to motivate students to go the extra mile in their academics?

What will a degree from Benedict come to represent? Will their graduates get a reputation for having a great work ethic? How far can you get in life if you don't know much STUFF but you're willing to work really hard? Or will SEE lead to graduates who have a good work ethic AND know stuff? Or will a degree from this school come to represent lowered standards?

I just don't know. I think kids ought to have acquired these work habits long before college - but if they haven't, and perhaps it's at least in part due to unfair, low-quality schooling, then why shouldn't a college take steps to instill those values even so late in the game? Especially if they believe those values will lead to more learning in the long run? Is this a case of giving a man a fish or teaching him to fish...?

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