A recent article in The New York Times revealed that in recent years, high school students’ class grades and GPAs have been steadily rising while their actual measurable reading skills have either declined or remained stagnant. There are more straight-A students in high schools now than ever before, yet college professors increasingly lament their students’ poor reading and writing skills. How can this be? How can grades be going up if skills, knowledge and understanding are going down?
As a teacher, I did not find this revelation to be the least bit surprising, and there is a very simple explanation. I have found in my experience that the number-one concern in secondary schools today is not raising standards or actually increasing students’ skills, knowledge or understanding. It is, rather, boosting the students’ self-esteem and “making them feel good about themselves,” regardless of their relative degree of skill, knowledge or understanding. In today’s secondary schools, the operative expression is, “Everyone’s a winner.” Teachers are taught at teachers’ colleges, and instructed by school administrators and supervisors, to never criticize student work, to always tell students that whatever they do or say is absolutely fabulous, and to never, ever, under any circumstances, tell a student that his answer is wrong or that her work is substandard. To do so, they say, would be “psychologically damaging;” we are afraid that the child will “turn off to learning” so we are compelled to validate every “opinion” he has, even if that “opinion” is that 2+2=19 or, as a 10th-grade student of mine recently wrote, that “Martin Luther King freed all the Native Americans from slavery.”
The result of this, unfortunately, is that we are producing a whole generation of young people obsessed with their feelings, opinions and personal happiness, with no conception at all of what it takes to be a responsible citizen and productive member of a merit-driven society. We spend their formative years constantly telling them how brilliant and wonderful they are, then send them out into a world that will not think so and will not tell them so. Students who grow up believing, and being taught to believe, that their feelings are more important than anything else and that they can always undo their mistakes have substantially greater difficulty adjusting to the realities of the workplace, and the adult world as a whole, than those who learn accountability and responsibility at an early age. In reaching this nadir, in teaching young people that their opinions matter but their choices don’t, the education system has thoroughly failed to properly balance the students’ short-term self-esteem against their long-term intellectual and moral development.
Rather than assess student work on a set of objective standards against which all students are measured, in many places teachers are told to essentially give an “A” to any student who maximizes his or her individual ability (or, alternatively, to give an “A” for merely doing the work, regardless of its quality). Many of my friends and colleagues, particularly those who teach in middle schools, have reported being given such directives by supervisors. One math teacher was forbidden to mark more than a certain number of answers wrong on any given test or quiz, no matter how many the student actually answered incorrectly. Another was told to do specifically what is described above, i.e., adjust the performance standards for each individual student so everyone can receive the highest mark. Secondary schools have thus been progressively moving from objective to subjective standards of assessment.
To illustrate, the Comprehensive English Regents Exam provides a performance-assessment rubric that establishes and describes six levels of performance for essays. 6 is the highest level, 1 is the lowest; 3 is generally considered the minimum passing score. Should a teacher choose to use this rubric to assess a class assignment or exam, an objective assessment mode would be to give an “A” to a student whose essay meets the 6 standard, a “B” for meeting the 5 standard, “C” for a 4, “D” for a 3, and an “F” for a 2 or 1. While this certainly seems reasonable, what often happens instead is that if a student is only capable of writing, say, a level-4 essay, we give her an “A” for producing that level-4 essay because that’s the best she can do (this would be a subjective standard), even though the objective standard provides and defines two levels of performance above that. The 5 and 6 (mastery-level) standards are really quite difficult to attain; only the best high-school writers can do it. Classroom teachers thus feel compelled to lower the standards in order to give most or all of their students A’s and B’s, because we don’t want to “make them feel bad” by giving them C’s or D’s when they “did their best,” and if the 5 and 6 objective standards are out of reach for some students, that’s “not their fault.”
The troubling aspect of this, however, is that when we consider carefully this sort of individualized standard-setting we must realize that it essentially allows students to set their own standards. If a student knows, consciously or unconsciously, that she will deserve and receive an “A” no matter what the actual objective quality of her work, so long as she claims to have “done her best,” she will have no incentive to improve her skills, expand her knowledge, and develop the ability to perform on a higher level. Why learn to write a level-5 essay if a level-4 essay will get her an “A”? It actually leads students to believe, and I have actually had students tell me this, that having lesser inherent abilities, skills and intelligence entitle the student to higher grades. Somehow, we have found a way to give students a powerful disincentive to learn, grow, develop and improve.
No one seems to believe anymore that low grades and constructive criticism will motivate students to increase their knowledge and improve their skills; that a low grade means the student must perform better to receive a higher one. The belief, instead, is that low grades and constructive criticism will “hurt their feelings” and cause them to “give up,” or, my personal favorite new cliché, “turn off to learning.” Therefore, we must avoid criticism entirely and give high grades across the board, so the students won’t feel bad and give up, and the way to increase student knowledge and skills is...
Do we really believe that telling students that everything they do and say is just wonderful will motivate them to actually learn more, to actually perform better? How far do we really need to go to preserve students’ self-esteem? When do we reach the point where we enable, even encourage, the sort of self-indulgent “turning off” we fear will occur when we tell a child that Dr. King did not, in fact, liberate the Indians?
We have, sadly, reached the point where our students often achieve success by our simply labeling whatever they do as excellent, rather than by our demanding and recognizing actual excellence. We shun the latter approach because, quite simply, not every student can perform at the highest levels, but we want every student to feel like an achiever, so we have to find or manufacture excellence in everyone’s work to avoid offending the sensibilities of the merely adequate. Yet excellence has no meaning if everyone is, or even most people are, excellent. An “A” is not an achievement if everyone in the class gets one. Our concern for students’ self-esteem has grown beyond reasonable proportions, to the point where schools have forgotten, and in some cases willfully ignored, what they are really supposed to do.
Assessment: Performance, or Just Fill-In-the-Blanks?
An alternative to this sort of grade inflation and individualized standards which I have also encountered in public high schools is: avoiding performance-based assessments altogether and sticking with traditional, purely objective assessment tools like multiple-choice and short-answer tests and quizzes as the sole means of determining a student’s grade average. In one school where I have taught, I was compelled to use such devices exclusively, to make them as easy as possible, give the students the answers in advance, and mark them very generously. In other words, the purpose of the assessment was not to measure student knowledge and skills, or even to determine whether the students were learning; the primary purpose instead was to ensure that the students received high scores, 100% wherever possible, so they would “feel good.” (I wish I was making this up or exaggerating, but I’m not; my supervisor specifically instructed me to design my tests and quizzes with this precise purpose in mind. Her words: "Give them the answers, then give them a quiz so they can get a hundred, so they'll feel good." I kid you not.) I was not permitted to base my students’ grades on performance-based assessments like writing projects and reader-response notebooks because, in the words of my supervisor, they were “too subjective” and I could therefore not “justify the grade.”
The students in that school put it another way; they considered any grade they received on an essay or notebook as “just your opinion,” an obvious by-product of the aforementioned subjective/individualized standards. If students can decide for themselves what constitutes an “A,” then it is easy for them to dismiss a teacher’s evaluation of their work as merely a matter of opinion, and it follows that they may confidently assert to themselves (and their parents) that the teacher was “wrong” to give such a low grade. In other words, the student’s assessment of his own work matters more than the teacher’s, and consequently the student learns absolutely nothing. The student (or parent) decides for himself that his work deserves an "A," dismisses the teacher's criticism and evaluation as subjective or arbitrary and therefore "wrong," and brings pressure to bear on the teacher to raise the grade, whether directly or through a supervisor, in which case the student usually gets what he wants. How on earth can anyone possibly learn anything under these conditions?
While it is substantially more difficult, complex and time-consuming to assess performance than to mark multiple-choice answers right or wrong, the assessment of a writing project or response notebook is no more “subjective” than anything else. Where assessment rubrics are used and applied, with levels and standards of performance clearly defined and differentiated, and papers are compared against the rubric and against each other, all measured by the same standards, the assessment is therefore objective. This is how the Comprehensive English Regents is assessed, and how grades in higher education are determined, particularly in English. Any knowledgeable, experienced teacher of English Language Arts can readily, consistently and objectively recognize different levels of writing skill. There is nothing “subjective” about it, nor is it a matter of “opinion.” The suggestion is absurd.
There is nothing wrong with multiple-choice/short-answer/content-based assessments per se, and while I tend not to use them I am not altogether opposed to the concept. However, as I view English Language Arts as a performance-oriented academic discipline of an entirely unique character among traditional secondary-school subject areas, as the ELA Regents is a performance-oriented exam with no prescribed body of content whatsoever, and as students receive significant experience with short-answer-type content-based assessments in other subject areas, it seems to make the most sense to use performance-based assessments in English. Yet despite the new standards and the design of the ELA Regents, too many administrators still see English as a content area no different from Social Studies or Science, and insist that it be taught as such. (One school in which I taught went a step further, forcefully mandating the teaching of Social Studies content in English classes, but that’s a separate issue…)
In other words, students in high school English classes are typically asked only to answer basic content questions about literature, define arbitrarily-selected vocabulary words out of context, and write formulaic, template-driven compositions where most of the thought, organization, construction and development is done for them so they are practically guaranteed a maximum grade. The so-called "writing process" which I was forced to use in one school was in actuality a rigid procedure only one step removed from having the students simply take dictation. Literary response, inquiry, appreciation and exploration, analytical and interpretive thinking, thought- and process-based writing instruction, etc., have no place in many modern-day English classrooms. (I even once had a supervisor tell me, in these exact words, “This is English, not writing.”)
The problem that content-only and short-answer-only proponents have with performance-based assessments is not that they find them objectionable or lacking in educational value, or even “too subjective.” It is simply that performance-based assessments are (a.) more challenging, (b.) more difficult and time-consuming to mark and grade, and (c.) perhaps most importantly, susceptible not only to the differing inherent abilities of teenagers but to their potential for recalcitrance, laziness, irresponsibility, short attention spans and limited resourcefulness. A student could conceivably do little or no work in or out of the classroom and still pass a content-based test, or at least receive some credit for answering some of the questions correctly, but if a student neglects to produce and submit a performance-based assessment product, such as a reader-response notebook or writing project, he can receive no credit at all and his grade average must therefore suffer tremendously. Performance assessments are anathema to students who are lazy and irresponsible, who are not resourceful problem-solvers, who take no initiative, who are not willing to devote the time and effort outside the classroom to produce the product, who are quick to give up when faced with a challenging task, who use their intellectual energy and effort to find ways to avoid work rather than accomplish it.
In my experience, everywhere I have been, in any given class at any grade level, for any performance-based assignment which the students must produce on their own without direct supervision, anywhere from half to 2/3 of the students will submit it; occasionally fewer, never more. Some will submit it late, others will submit it incomplete, but at the end of the day roughly 1/3 of any given class will hand in nothing at all and think nothing of doing so, without ever having asked for help or expressed any reservations about the assignment. They just simply won't bother to do it, and they'll worry about avoiding the consequences, which they always assume they'll be able to do, later.
Even though employers in most businesses are less interested in what a person knows than in what he can produce, we spare students the burden of having to produce actual work-product and limit our assessments to their ability to correctly fill in pre-printed blanks in a classroom setting because we fear, indeed we know, that too many of them simply will not produce. Performance-based assessments require the students to think, to solve problems, to bring resources to bear, to make intelligent determinations independently, to plan ahead, to manage time efficiently, to produce a measurable end product, and to meet a deadline, all of which are universal, essential and invaluable skills in just about any business, but which some educators believe that high-school students can’t, won’t, or shouldn’t have to, do.
The Role of Expectations
The end result of all this, it seems, is diminished expectations. We either think they can't or won’t do it, or discover that they don’t do it, so we lower our expectations by not requiring or expecting them to do it. We accept the reasons they give us for not having done the work, whatever they may be, and either relieve them of the requirement, give them more time or somehow make the assignment easier; anything to prevent them from failing and avoid placing the burden of performance and responsibility on the students, not to mention making ourselves look bad by having large numbers of students fail our courses. Students therefore know that it is not their responsibility to do the work, it is rather the teacher's responsibility to get them to do the work. If they don't do it, they won't be blamed; the teacher will. What they learn as a result is that the solution to any problem, the appropriate response to a challenge, the way to handle adversity, is to do nothing.
One cannot teach students anything if there is not some degree of expectation that the student will make an effort to learn it, make an attempt to do the work, be willing and able to improve gradually until she masters it, and accept the consequences of not actually trying. I’ve grown weary of hearing other adults tell me that “kids can’t” do this or that, or forgive them for not doing it because “they’re just kids.” Young people can do anything, but (1.) we have to teach them how, and (2.) more importantly, we must expect it of them. The idea which I’ve often been told, that if students produce poor work (or no work at all) then that means we haven’t taught the material or skills properly or haven’t adequately explained the requirement, is useful to teachers as a philosophical approach but as a practical matter is at best only half right, at worst utter nonsense. Even the best teachers’ most skilled and effective instruction is useless if we don’t concomitantly place expectations on students to respond and perform. Put simply, students will not “get it” and will not produce the work if they know, consciously or unconsciously, that they really don’t have to. If a student is given an assignment but knows that she’ll be forgiven if she doesn’t do it and complains about it, why should she do it? Where is her incentive to produce the work when avoiding it would be easier and, more importantly, have the same outcome?
There is no point in “raising standards” if we do not also raise expectations. Raising standards essentially means establishing a level of excellence, and a precise description thereof, that exceeds the existing one, and telling students: You must perform at this level, you must produce work that meets this description, in order to receive an “A” grade. Yet if we then turn around and say, “High school kids can’t do that,” or that “This is too hard for him,” or "We don't want her to feel bad," and thus give “A’s” for producing lesser work, or make the work easier by employing assessments designed mainly to increase grades, extending assignment deadlines or otherwise obviating accountability, then we haven’t raised standards; we’ve actually lowered them. If a student can’t reach the “A” standard, we need to teach her how to get there from where she is, not tell her that she’s there already or substitute a lower standard for the “A” just for that student. We also have to expect her to perform at that high level to receive an “A,” and not permit or enable her to “turn off to learning” because the "C" grade she received “made her feel bad.”
All this is instructive when we consider the question of why our students’ reading skills are so poor, especially in comparison with their grades. Aside from the fact that young people don’t read much and don’t value reading, and aside from the obvious clichés about the distractions of electronic media and socialization, the reason why young people don’t read well is that neither we nor they expect them to read well. What I mean by that is that when we give students a literary text to read, and a student doesn’t “get it” or doesn’t “like it” or finds it “boring” or lodges some other ubiquitous complaint, we “let him off the hook” either by lowering standards, changing requirements, or essentially doing all of his thinking for him.
I had a supervisor once tell me that we could not possibly expect 10th graders to understand To Kill a Mockingbird, thus it was my responsibility to “explain it” to them. By “understand” here I mean only basic comprehension; i.e., read it and have a reasonable idea of what it’s about. By the time a student reaches 10th grade, he should be able to read something in his native language and have a fairly good idea of what he just read, should he not? If it was indeed true that these students were incapable of gleaning even an elementary understanding from reading an unchallenging text like Mockingbird, this seemed to be perfectly OK with that supervisor. I found myself wondering what was the point of having the students read the book in the first instance, since she clearly expected their entire understanding of it to come from me.
The reason why high-school and college students are not very good readers is simple: because no one has ever told them that they’re not very good readers, and no one has ever expected them to be good readers. What no one wants to acknowledge, and certainly no one wants to tell students, is that the key to becoming a better reader lies with the reader himself; you, the reader, must expect and be expected to understand and appreciate the material you read. I’m not suggesting that every high-school student has to “like” or be able to fully interpret and analyze whatever he’s given to read; my point is that we need to acknowledge and emphasize the reader’s role in the reading experience, and understand that for the purposes of literary study the burden of basic comprehension lies with the reader. In first grade, we learn how to read. In fifth grade, we learn to understand what we read. In high school, we learn to study literature. These distinctions are important.
Beyond basic literacy (ABC’s, phonics, etc.), reading is a skill, just like any other, and as with any category of skill some people simply aren’t very good at it. The question, then, is how do we objectively assess and improve reading skill? How do readers become better readers? Skilled readers exhibit four essential qualities: fluency, curiosity, patience, and imagination. By the same token, unskilled readers lack these qualities to varying degrees. When students struggle with reading, rather than brush the issue aside by rationalizing that the material must be too difficult or inherently unappealing, we all (students and teachers) need to examine the characteristics of the reader, specifically the reader’s degree of each of these qualities and how they can each be improved. We need to begin by examining how the reader approaches the text, and the task/experience of reading in general.
When a student lodges a complaint about a text, whether it regards the student’s understanding or personal (dis)liking thereof, the student’s thinking usually boils down to the idea that there must be something wrong with the book. If I’m the student, I “don’t understand it” because it uses words and language that are unfamiliar or confusing to me; I “find it boring” because it addresses topics and/or ideas in which I have not already developed and cultivated an interest; I “don’t like it” because it does not fall within the range of my personal tastes. In other words, it’s "the book’s fault" for not meeting my standards and expectations, for using words I don’t know and addressing things I don’t care about; my not “getting” it and not “liking” it have nothing to do with me, therefore I should not have to read it, answer questions about it, write about it, or have my grade based on it.
As teachers, we cannot accept this, not if we truly want to make better readers of our students. While this is not truly a question of “blame,” we cannot allow students to, simply speaking, “blame the book” and absolve themselves of their studies. If the words and language are unfamiliar or challenging, that means the student lacks fluency; she should recognize the necessity of learning the language and see the reading as an opportunity to learn the language, rather than reject the text and give up on the reading because it’s “too hard.” Of course, we need to help her do that, but we do not help her by doing her thinking for her or “letting her off the hook” by lifting the requirement and giving her something easier or that she “likes.”
Moreover, it is simply not possible for any literate person to “not understand” something he reads in his native language. The understanding may be incomplete, under-developed or even inaccurate, but “I don’t understand this at all” is simply false. We cannot accept this either. For one thing, basic comprehension is a 5th-grade skill. High-school students must be expected, and expect themselves, to glean and develop some understanding of what they read in their own language. “Understanding” is not an all-or-nothing proposition; it is not a binary inquiry of whether the reader “gets it” or not. We need to help them, yes, but not by spending all of our time translating English into English.
We need to teach students to ask questions, but of the sort that will help them further their own understanding, rather than the sort that asks us to do their thinking and understanding for them. Saying “I don’t get it” is not asking for help; it’s asking someone else to exert the intellectual effort for you. The lazy or recalcitrant mind says “I don’t get it” and waits for an explanation; the curious, active mind develops a basic idea then asks a question whose answer will further develop, clarify or complete that idea. We do our students no favors by expediting their “understanding” and allowing them to skip the thinking process.
When high-school readers reject a book because they “don’t like it,” or it “doesn’t interest them,” or because it’s “boring” or whatever other excuses they typically proffer, that indicates a lack of curiosity, patience and/or imagination. Complaints like this are profoundly ingenuous; the student merely wishes to avoid the necessary time and intellectual effort. There is a difference between what a student cannot do, and what he is unwilling to do. Again, we cannot as educators indulge, accept or enable this if we want our students’ reading skills to improve. Students who complain about books in this manner, and adults who indulge those complaints, completely miss and deliberately sidestep the critical issue. We need to ignore and avoid engaging with things that simply don’t matter, and concentrate on what we are truly charged with accomplishing.
A skilled reader can find and discover an interest in whatever she reads, and it is her job, not the author’s, to do that. We should encourage the development of curiosity, patience and imagination, and while we never want reading to become drudgery or seem punitive, our students must understand that they, not the books, bear the burden of interest and the burden of understanding. We in turn, as teachers, bear the burden of fostering and cultivating that understanding, interest and appreciation, of teaching students to take their understanding of a text to higher levels of literary response and analysis, preparing them not only for the ELA Regents Exam but for the study of literature and language arts in higher education.
Unfortunately, many educators and parents feel that the burden of interest and understanding is too great to place on high school students, and again for fear of having them “give up” or “turn off,” we one way or another relieve them of it, either by taking it on ourselves or eliminating it altogether by lowering standards or changing requirements. At the end of the day, especially when it comes to reading, no one seems to want to place any part of the burden of learning on the learner. Yet we proceed to send these students off to college, where professors do expect them to understand and interpret what they read without any intellectual hand-holding, and the students find themselves ill-equipped to handle the responsibility. These skills do not suddenly appear on their own when one becomes a college freshman; one needs to have them by the time one gets there.
There are those who might argue that my approach is far too cynical and harsh on the students; that it is unreasonable and unfair to expect this sort of performance or place this sort of burden on adolescents, and that many of them truly do struggle and are not merely trying to "get over." Yet these are the same folks who think we ought to be constantly telling students how brilliant they are and how exceptional their work is, whether it's true or not. I've had students complain to me about the work being too difficult and expectations too high, and at the same time grouse about my not giving them enough credit for being intelligent and capable, entirely oblivious to the irony and absurdity of lodging both complaints at once. They can't have it both ways. One cannot "give kids credit" for being smart and resourceful while simultaneously making requirements as unchallenging as possible to make sure everyone goes home happy, because of some misguided, unfounded belief that "the kids can't handle" anything more substantial. Giving kids credit for their intelligence and capabilities means holding them to higher standards and expecting that they can and will perform to meet them, not obsequiously praising whatever they do and say.
Our students will not become better readers, or better learners, until they value it, and to value it they must have a stake in it. The only way that can happen is if they understand that it is their responsibility, their choice, to embrace reading as a skill, understand that they need to get better at it, and seek out a way to make that happen instead of seeking out a way to avoid it. Otherwise, they’ll just be looking at words on a page and waiting, ultimately in vain, for someone else to do their reading, thinking and understanding for them.