Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Making Grades Count

I just finished reading a brilliant article in the October 2009 issue of the National Review by Robert Verbruggen entitled "Beyond the BA: Why Fewer People Should Get One." I am pretty ecumenical when it comes to looking for insight and erudition and the National Review does not disappoint.  It is good to see that not all conservative "thinkers" come equipped with personality disorders, and that there are some important voices coming from the right. I highly recommend that article.

In my last post I discussed how many college students hate the process of higher education and merely endure it.  I have some recommendations to make on how we can begin to change that by making grades really count and having a process of real accountability.

 We hire students emerging from college without adequate evidence as to their abilities and especially as to their character and work habits.  We know that grades earned in college may have no bearing on actual ability, and that letters of recommendation are from carefully picked persons who will at the very least damn them with faint praise. An acquaintance of mine, an editor at a magazine, told me how her publication inadvertently hired an intern who could not write.   The managing editors suspect that the sample paper used in the application was professionally written because there is such a mismatch between the quality of that document and the subsequent inability of that person to form coherent sentences.  They literally gave up on having the intern write stories since it was more work to rewrite (editing is too light a term) the articles than it was worth.  Situations like that can be avoided with improved hiring practices and expanding how we grade.  What to do?

First of all we need to not only award grades for academic performance but for such things as attendance and honesty.  As an employer I would definitely like to know that the job applicant in front of me had atrocious attendance.  I would like to know that the next candidate cheated on a biology exam, and the one after that routinely showed disrespect for the teacher or spent their class time texting.  Is that better to know than they made an A in English Composition and a B in Biology?  With such a system that C student with a stellar attendance record who worked full time while acquiring their degree might suddenly look better than the other candidates who cynically played the grade game with their constant mantra of: "Will we be getting a study guide?" and the perennial favorite "Will that be on the test?" Somethings are more important than the things we currently grade for.

Employers can do something too.  Get tougher on checking things out.  Ask for a recommendation from the students advisor, from two other faculty members including one outside their major.  Ask tough questions about attendance, ability to work with others, and how they accepted responsibility.  Ask for a couple of writing samples from old papers rather than something prepared especially for the hiring process.  Then, require them to write something right there during the hiring process. 

The current grading system is inadequite and designed for a different era.  That era is dead.  Grades no longer tell you enough about a student and many many things that you should know never make it onto a college transcript.  Trust me on that.

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