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Grading schools’ honor rolls

“. . . where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average.”

Garrison Keillor’s tag line — paid homage by Pat Wick’s regular tag line of “another day in the county” — could, of course, be said of almost any small town, not just his fictional hometown of Lake Wobegon, Minnesota.

Looking around Marion County, we see plenty of strong women — leaders like respected former mayors and current courthouse officials, even physically strong younger women like the teens and pre-teens involved in powerlifting and other sports.

When we, as men of the county, ask our mirror, mirror on the wall, we rarely hear that we’re the fairest of all. But most of us clean up halfway decent and don’t look as if we belong in the background of the “Dueling Banjos” sequence from “Deliverance.”

Our children clearly are above average. You need look only at all the multiple valedictorians and salutatorians from local schools or the honor rolls they issue. This week, for example, includes a honor roll in which 25 of 33 seniors — a little more than three out of every four students in the class — are listed on the high, regular, or honorable mention honor roll.

Not that we’d want to do it, but we might be tempted to save space by publishing a “dishonor” roll of the eight who weren’t listed.

Those receiving honors deserve our praise and admiration for working hard in school. And the teachers and others who create honor rolls deserve similar praise and admiration for creating a system that encourages students to perform and rewards them when they do.

But, aside for bolstering egos that admittedly sometimes could use a boost, does it actually do what it’s intended — to honor the absolute best, encourage others to emulate them, and create a reward that might help spur them onward?

There’s a dirty little secret known only to those of us who at one time or another were tasked with deciding which students to admit to selective colleges and universities and, perhaps more important, which of them should receive scholarships to help pay the ridiculously high tuition, fees, room, and board that students now must endure.

Grade-point averages — the old “four point oh,” straight A’s standard — no longer count for much.

Part of the reason is what people in education call grade inflation — giving more and more students better and better grades not just to encourage them but also to discourage parents and others from complaining.

Another reason is that some districts play with the numbers, awarding five points, not four, for some classes, especially those that promise to provide college credit. In some suburban school districts, a 4.00 grade-point average is mediocre. Top students there may have grade-point averages approaching 5.00 on a scale on which 4.00 is supposed to be the top rung.

What college deans now do is to look not at a grade-point averages but rather to look at percentile class ranks — in other words, what percentage of the class any given student did better than. If a class has 30 students and the applicant was in the top 3, he or she would be in the top 10% or the 90th percentile.

Therein lies the rub. If a school insists it has seven valedictorians out of 35 graduates, all seven are in the top 20% or the 80th percentile. And at top colleges looking to give out top scholarships, the 80th percentile is probably way below average for the high school class rank they seek.

In fact, at the university where I still hold a professorial title, the average GPA of all students — smartest to dumbest — was 3.43, and that number has been rising steadily in recent years.

It’s not something that most people understand. A recent scholarship donor, for example, wanted to earmark scholarship money for a student with a C- grade average. That’s 1.67 on the 4.00 scale. The problem is, at the university in question, a student who maintains less than a 2.00 GPA flunks out.

That’s right. You don’t have to get F’s to flunk out. All C’s will do. That’s what’s happened to grades. As a result, the university has a strict policy for its own honor rolls. No more than the top 20% of any class can make it to the list. That may mean that the cutoff for the honor roll is closer to 3.80 than to 3.00, but it gives a fairer indication of how students perform vis-à-vis each other.

And that, ultimately, is the name of the game. While in early grades, it’s perfectly fine to give every kid an award for participation, as students get closer to having to function in the real world, they need to understand that it’s a very competitive environment. You either win or you lose. Second place isn’t something you win. It’s the consolation prize for not winning. And in our global economy, runners-up often finish last.

Teenagers don’t need to have that harsh truth slap them in the face at every turn, but they gradually need to be weaned of the notion that anyone is honored simply for showing up — and sometimes are honored even when they don’t show up that often, just sometimes.

We admire all the students who become valedictorians or make the honor roll. They’re demonstrating, for the whole community to see, that they’re serious about learning and advancing in the world.

We just hope they have a gradual weaning of artificial praise before they get slapped in the face by the cold realities of a world in which second place often translates to loser.

— ERIC MEYER

Last modified June 8, 2023

 

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