The Setbacks of Standardization

The Setbacks of Standardization

1/13/2008

Kenneth Burchfiel

Imagine the GPA your parents would have if they were in school right now. Chances are, it wouldn’t be pretty. Their history knowledge would likely be poor. Their upper-level math skills would be rusty, at best. They might not remember a thing about chemistry or biology. And yet, there would be one subject—be it math, English, or an elective—that they would get an A+ in. As part of their job, your parents specialize in one particular field, be it chemistry or journalism. Despite their poor grade point average they would receive, your parents have the right idea. Career success isn’t about knowing a good amount in many subjects, but about excelling in one subject in particular.

Your parents should feel guilty that you’re driven to excel in seven.

The grade point average has been around ever since you, or your mom, or your great uncle can remember. The idea behind it is simple enough. Kids receive grades in all of their subjects; by averaging out their scores into a four-point scale, students (and colleges) get a sense of their academic performance. I don’t see a problem with grading kids, or with combining those letters into a numerical scale. What I do find hard to accept is the faceless standardization that forms the center of each GPA—the idea that every class, regardless of its intensity or relevance to a student, is equally important.

Let’s say that your mother is an engineer for an aerospace company. She’s brilliant when it comes to math and science, and spends hours honing her skills in those two subjects. And yet, her writing skills are a bit lacking, she can’t tell Theodore Roosevelt from FDR, and you cringe when she picks up a musical instrument.

If your mom were in high school right now, her GPA would be average, at best. It wouldn’t matter that she took calculus as a sophomore, or that she constructed a working drawbridge out of popsicle sticks. The GPA system would take all of her abilities, lump them together and churn out a two-digit number. How does a system like that predict future success, let alone performance in college?

You could make the point that nobody in high school knows, for a fact, what they’ll do after senior year. Job choices change. Majors change. However, I firmly believe that every student has, at the least, a general sense of what they’re good at and what they enjoy.

Despite what each of your seven teachers might say, your most important subject this year is the one you’ll continue to pursue when college admissions and transcripts are a thing of the past. That’s what makes the current GPA system archaic: it doesn’t reflect the talents and interests of students at all, let alone cater to them.

Students deserve a new way of measuring academic performance, one that encourages kids to focus in classes that they care about. A 21st century GPA would be weighted, putting extra emphasis on certain classes and less on others. It would require a course system that combined rigorous “focus” classes with other subjects meant only for background information. This sort of change would open the gates for specialized education and independent study, giving students free reign to explore the subjects that interest them the most.

When every class makes the same difference in a transcript, none of this is possible. That’s the danger of traditional grade point averages. When kids are pushed to stand out in all of their classes, their problems go beyond a heavy workload: they have no room left to investigate subjects that might, one day, become the center of their jobs. Students’ futures are pushed back as they scramble to earn the coveted 4.0. Is it no wonder that many people in college aren’t sure about what they want to major in until their sophomore or junior year?

Nobody can blame administrators for trying to measure academic achievement. However, averaging out courses into one single number is no way to measure the unique skills and abilities of high school students. It’s time for educators to find a means for scoring academic achievement that’s as up-to-date and unique as the students themselves.

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