Sunday, June 6, 2010

Gee, What a Suprise.

This was in today's NY Post:

NY Passes Students Who Get Wrong Answers on Tests

State education officials had vowed to "strengthen" and "increase the rigor" of both the questions and the scoring when about 1.2 million kids in grades 3 to 8 -- including 450,000 in New York City -- took English exams in April and math exams last month.

But scoring guides obtained by The Post reveal that kids get half-credit or more for showing fragments of work related to the problem -- even if they screw up the calculations or leave the answer blank.

The scoring guidelines, called "holistic rubrics," require that points be given if a kid's attempt at an answer reflects a "partial understanding" of the math concept, "addresses some element of the task correctly," or uses the "appropriate process" to arrive at a wrong solution. Despite flubbing the answer, students can get 1 point on a 2-point problem and 1 or 2 points on a 3-pointer.

Ray Domanico, a former head of data analysis for city schools, said kids deserve a little credit for partial knowledge but agreed the scoring system "raises some questions about whether it's too generous."

I'm not going to reproduce the entire article here, but you get the point; click the link above if you want to see some examples. The basic gist of it is that even on standardized math tests, just "trying your best" is good enough; the standards are being lowered to allow students who cannot do the work to pass anyway. This is further proof that our educational system values participation more than achievement, seeks to reward the attempt as much as success, and is unwilling to distinguish those who can do the work from those who can't.

Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not entirely opposed to the concept of "partial credit," and I do think kids should get some credit for trying. But there comes a point where "partial credit" becomes a hindrance to the learning process. Kids ultimately will not learn if they keep having it drilled into their heads that the result is always fine as long as they "tried," or as long as they produced something, or as long as they have some inkling of what they're doing no matter how limited, misguided or misapplied that inkling is.

When I taught on Long Island, I was told going in that the kids in that school were excellent writers. As one might expect, their actual essays told a different story. Their grammar and syntax were imprecise, their sentences were wordy and vague, they used the verb 'to be' far too often, and they used far too many 5th-grade "training-wheels" phrases ["What this quote means is..." "Another example of ___ is..." "This is a good example of ___ because ...."] Unfortunately, I was the first teacher who had ever told them that their writing wasn't very good, and they deeply resented me for it. When I showed a level-3 essay to my supervisor, she insisted it was a level-5; when I noted the language problems, she said, "Well, if you can pretty much understand what they're trying to say, that's good enough."

No, I replied, it's not "good enough." Writing in English requires precision. When you write, your words need to say exactly precisely what you mean; nothing more or less. It's one thing to give a student appropriate credit for his or her work, but it does no one any good to pretend that imprecise language is anything other than imprecise, and inadequate to the task of communicating ideas to the reader. 

I've gone off on an English-related tangent here; math, of course, is different. An essay or a notebook entry in English Language Arts is never "right" or "wrong" the way the answer to a math problem is. In English we identify and distinguish levels of performance, not "right" and "wrong" "answers" (although students in English, I have found, have a hard time telling the difference between these paradigms). Giving "partial credit" is one way to make math more performance-oriented and less result-oriented, and having thought about it I don't find the rubrics quite as outrageous as the Post does. Yet it's really just another symptom of how our educational system has shifted away from promoting and instilling new knowledge and new skills, to validating what kids already know and can already do.