Grading on a Curve — for Schools

A young girl, studying in schoolGenerally speaking, in order to get an “A” grade, you have to demonstrate that not only did you learn the material but that you demonstrated an understanding far beyond what was expected for the course.  You could say that someone deserving of an “A” would know the material so well that they wouldn’t even make careless mistakes on a test — the material would be far too simple to provide any wrong answers.  In the case of a school, an “A” would mean that the school is turning out students who not only meet the standards but go well beyond them.  But what do you do if your schools aren’t performing so well and you still want to say they get an “A”?  Well, if you’re the Public Education Department in New Mexico, you redefine what it means to get an “A”.

Rather than score their schools on a traditional “A = 90-100” sort of scale, the department assigned the top 10% of schools an “A” — meaning that a score as low as 75 out of 100 got the top grade.  A rating of 50/100 still garnered a “C” rather than the more traditional “F” grade.  Department Secretary Hanna Skandera explained the reason for the new grading system: “Last year we had 87 percent of our schools failing according to … No Child Left Behind,” she said. “I don’t believe 87 percent of our schools are failing.”  Of course, never mind that students aren’t learning — that’s not the problem, the grading system is.

The state apparently needed to set a benchmark for all the schools to shoot for and, rather than going for “teach the darn kids”, they decided to fudge the grades.  Instead of setting the bar high, they went the other way.  “Our bar is the top 10 percent,” Skandera said. “That’s how we’re measuring success. I think that’s an excellent starting point for asking, ‘How are we doing?’ And let’s benchmark against that and go forward and aspire that every single one of our schools is in the top 10 percent.”

I’m not so sure I agree.  It seems to me that one should shoot for the absolute top, not simply as good as you’ve got.  Admittedly, educating kids is a challenging task, but shouldn’t those who do so be setting the example of trying their best and working towards perfection?  It feels as if the New Mexico PED is setting up a loophole in order to get out of having to fix the problem of failing schools.  What do you think?  Is the best of what they’ve got good enough or should they try to better all the schools?

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