Thursday, June 17, 2010

65 days to Bar Mitzvah: measuring success

How much do you care about grades? I mean now, not when you were a kid. Because I can tell you that I seem to care about them way more now then I did when I was the one being graded.

Today, report cards arrived.

They came along with "practice" SSAT scores. It was coincidence. I'm sure Brandeis Hillel Day School, which sent the report cards but had nothing to do with the timing of the SSAT scores, did not plan on giving us such a comprehensive impression of our children's academic progress. We got it anyway, all wrapped up in a neat little package. Total academic judgement is as easy as laying two sheets of paper side-by-side.

I'm not sure if I've discussed the SSAT here yet. It is the pre-pre-SAT, the standardized test favored by most San Francisco "independent" high schools. A quick Google search reveals that it is also favored by many prestigious boarding schools like Choate and Andover. These are the shark-infested waters in which our children swim. We are, whether we intend to or not, sending them out to do battle with the former Masters of the Universe, the rep tie-clad scions of American fortune.

And here they are: undersized, perhaps a touch immature, sporting faint moustaches that will disappear the first time we, their fathers, teach them to shave. These little kids are taking the exact same test Finny and Eugene would take, were they hashing out their separate peace today, rather than in 1940.

When I was a teacher, I cared not at all about grades. If I thought about it at all, it was to determine that a D should be as hard to get as an A. While the baseball state geek part of me loved the actual act of tallying up people's scores, I was firmly, philosophically against the notion of summing up a kid's value by a single letter grade.

My thinking was that grades are supposed to function as check points. They assess the student's progress. How well is he keeping up with classwork? Is this subject something that interests her enough to give me back what I require in order to give her a top grade? A quiz or test grade seemed simple: it measured how much more you needed to learn. You got a 75? You've got 25% more stuff to master until you can safely move on to the next concept or unit.

Grades should be instruments used to help students figure out how they're doing, and I suspect that whoever invented the four-point grade scale had exactly that in mind. They're not supposed to be endpoints by which we judge kids' value.

Lets say, for example, that the Jawa comes home today and finds two sheets of paper on the kitchen table, along with my laptop, which has not moved since Sandra Bullock left for Zurich, because we're guys and guys are efficient; why move the laptop when I'll just have to put it back there again the next day?

Lets say he sees these sheets of paper. One of them, his report card, has him getting a B+ in math. This is very disappointing for a number of reasons. First, the impressions was that this year, having dropped from the "top" math class to the "middle" math class, an A in math should have been a given, which is so screwed up on so many levels -- the idea being that you should back off from something that challenges you, opting instead for an easier version, so you can log a good grade and improve your chances of getting into a "good" high school. It becomes a game instead of a chance to learn.

Lets say that sitting right next to your B+ is your SSAT score, and your highest SSAT score -- by far -- comes in, you guessed it, math. How are you going to process this obvious dichotomy?

Actually, as a parent who isn't too jazzed about using letter grades as a value judgement, the stellar SSAT score gives you a nice crutch. Instead of railing, "HOW CAN YOU GET A B+ IN MATH?" you can calmly hold the two sheets of paper next to each other and say, "See here, where your math score is so much higher than your other scores? Don't you think that should somehow translate into math being your best subject in school?"

And thanks to the numbered comments system. While it limits teacher comments to a string of digits, "1-9, 12, 16," it at least, in the Jawa's case, forms a nice pattern on which to hang a reasonable discussion. "See this? All of these comments are the same. None of them have anything to do with your ability to do the work, and yet all drag your grades down. Doesn't that frustrate you?"

Even after making this convincing case for raising his grades which, in all honesty, weren't that bad, but with this looming high school admissions pressure coming ever closer, we have to assume that everything short of perfect is potentially a one-way ticket to San Francisco public schools, many of which have no doors on their bathroom stalls, making it much more difficult for students to complete drug transactions or beat each other silly without anyone seeing.

It's a lot of pressure. Too much. We all know that. And yet, it's the agenda we accepted the minute we fell in love with the view from Coit Tower. When in Rome.

How strange is my child's school experience? Think of this: eight years in and he wouldn't recognize a totally checked-out kid if one was standing three inches from his face. Nobody in his school is checked-out. Nobody completely blows off teachers, never does their homework, shows up at school drunk, habitually ditches class, regularly talks back to teachers and spends time every week in the principal's class. Nobody has a marijuana leaf drawn on their P.E. uniform. Nobody hangs out in a gang and threatens people. The one time a bad seed somehow made it through, he was suspended seemingly every other week until finally "not getting asked back" this year. But even that kid, as sociopathical as he was, still managed to have a Bar Mitzvah.

Sometimes I wish the Jawa's school curriculum could be built around Legos and roller coasters, with a few "Godzilla in Literature" Humanities classes thrown in. I bet he'd bring home some killer grades if they did that.

1 comment:

ted_dagnese said...

Clearly, you need to beat the Jawa senseless until he starts bringing home A's. That's how we do it in our house!