Inflated grades giving good students a false sense of security, preparedness

August 30, 1998|By MICHAEL OLESKER

THE LATEST cause for depression from the state's high schools arrives as parents plunk down their life savings, plus all they can borrow from the banks, plus whatever they can pick up from hocking the family silverware handed down from beloved Aunt Petunia, plus all the nickel deposits on soda bottles they can scrounge up, to pay their kids' college tuition this fall.

It turns out, money aside, there's this problem: A lot of the kids will hit their first classes and mutter to themselves, "We never covered this stuff in high school."

Though we're accustomed to bad news from the schools, last week's revelations from the Maryland Higher Education Commission have an unanticipated twist. This story's not about the knuckle-draggers, the troublemakers, the future dropouts, the sullen malcontents who have pulled down the overall reading and math scores over the last quarter-century.

It's about the Good Kids, the ones with some direction, who allegedly hit the books because the message from Mom and Dad aboutcollege being their ticket to the good life found some resonance.

Here's what the commission said this week: One in four state high school graduates -- the allegedly serious ones! the ones who took college prep classes! -- can't do freshman math when they enroll at state campuses. One in eight can't read or write well enough.

Automatically, this raises a couple of questions, to wit:

1. What were they doing all those years they were supposed to be developing language and math skills?

2. If, in fact, they did not develop these skills, how did they manage to get into college? In fact, how did they manage to graduate from high school?

Last time everybody around here looked, students needed good grades to get into college. Also, they needed to perform well in high school classrooms in order to get these good grades. This, however, was before the introduction of something called grade inflation, which touched kids at both ends of the academic spectrum.

Grade inflation gave passing grades to kids who didn't deserve to pass. Why? Because the system didn't want responsibility for them anymore. These kids were getting older than their classmates, and they were acting out in unhealthy ways. Some of them were last seen dribbling their guidance counselors across the faculty parking lot. Who could teach in such an atmosphere?

Consequently, they got through the system but floundered when they reached the outside world. A year ago, a survey of 970 businesses about the preparedness of Maryland high school students hitting the workplace found the following: 79 percent of firms hiring manufacturing or skilled workers said they had trouble finding qualified people, and 43 percent of the firms said such shortages have prevented them from expanding in Maryland.

Meanwhile, there's the other end of the spectrum, where grade inflation was hitting the college-bound kids. There was more pressure for them to succeed, to get into the college of their choice, or any college at all. Teachers felt the pressure, and so did administrators.

Also, somewhere back there in the last few decades, it became important not merely what a student learned, but how good a kid felt about himself. So kids got A's for work once considered worthy of a B or a C. The bar was lowered; the old challenges were softened. The kids didn't have to work as hard, and they didn't learn as much -- but they sure felt good about themselves.

So we now have thousands of youngsters leaving the state's high schools, full of false impressions about their own abilities. Their grades were good; thus, they think they've got college-level skills. But the colleges quickly declare otherwise, and stick these kids into remedial math and reading classes -- to learn skills they were supposed to have learned in high school, where teachers and administrators, eager to help the youngsters, unwittingly sold them a bill of goods.

They told them they were ready to meet the future when they were not.

(For what it's worth, Maryland's not alone. About three-quarters of America's colleges offer remedial courses. Even the Ivy League universities offer them, although they avoid any nomenclature hinting that they've lowered their standards. Harvard and Yale, for example, offer "peer tutoring" and writing centers.)

There's a plus side to all of this. The colleges are opening up opportunities to young people who never had them before. Learning becomes more universal. The problem is, having arrived in college, so many of these kids find themselves in a place they weren't prepared to handle when they were back in high school.

Pub Date: 8/30/98

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