Friday, September 25, 2009

Pass-Fail Education


A few months ago, I ran a spoof post: Detroit Public Schools To Drop Grading System

Occasionally, I get comments on older posts such as this which was obviously serious, but I'm not sure how well thought out.

When hiring prospective employees, a company is more likely to hire students that are driven, who participate in leadership opportunities at the university, students who put tremendous amounts of thought and effort into everything that they do. Those are the real students who are going places.

Most importantly, if the grading system is done away with, students who are serious about their educational careers will take what is really important from their courses: the lessons taught to them.

A new system of rewards based on effort, drive, passion, and talent should be implemented. By using a grading system that ranks a student's performance, it encourages students to "make the grade" as opposed to "make the most of your experience, and grow as much as you can". Students will be more motivated and energetic to learn and acquire skills and knowledge in a friendly, grade-pressure-free, learning environment than in a negative, pressure cooker grade-worry atmosphere. The needed learning and acquisition of knowledge should be in a hand on, semi one-to-one, practical in-class "workshop" atmosphere of practice.

However, instead of an "A" through "F" grading system, a pass or fail might be more effective. This would encourage students to look past the insignificant letter grades but still reward those who put in the required effort. For those that go above and beyond their semester coursework, they won't take home an "A+" but instead what they have learned. Instead of listing a high GPA on their resume, students could point out educational accomplishments.
I believe there may be a few problems with such a system:
  • A simple pass/fail system is seldom used for most human endeavors and even then there are some distinguishing assessments.
  • Human Resource departments would be reluctant to hire someone when their "pass" may mean little more than "showed up."
  • We, as individuals, tend to seek out the best service providers based on distinguishing qualifications... not "got 70% of the answers correct"... 70% of my surgeon's patients live.
  • While there may be variations in the grading standards, even those are recognized after a short time... graduating from some schools with high grades is far more significant than graduating from other schools with high grades... so pass/fail will still have some significance based on the school... but not enough for picking medical students or awarding grants for research or any number of competitive areas
  • Sports are part of school; will teams be based on a simple pass/fail? [maybe they already are to a certain extent, but we still have 1st, 2nd, and 3rd strings.]

Rather than blaming assessment for student failure, it may be wiser to look to the real root causes:

  • Individual effort
  • Parental effort
  • Instructor effort
  • Cultural influences
Pass/fail is a convenient way to avoid responsibility of all concerned and promotes mediocrity. Why bother to work hard if "good enough" gives you the "free pass." That's not to say that the grading system doesn't do that to a large degree already in systems such as Detroit, but it does provide an educational "filter" for those who simply are not qualified for more rigorous demands of more specialized education.

What I believe is more important is a thorough re-examination of our school model.

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There is always an easy solution to every human problem—neat, plausible, and wrong.
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“The Divine Afflatus,” A Mencken Chrestomathy, chapter 25, p. 443 (1949)
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SEARCH BLOG: FEDERAL RESERVE for full versions... or use the Blog Archive pulldown menu.

February 3, 2006
Go back to 1999-2000 and see what the Fed did. They are following the same pattern for 2005-06. If it ain't broke, the Fed will fix it... and good!
August 29, 2006 The Federal Reserve always acts on old information... and is the only cause of U.S. recessions.
December 5, 2006 Last spring I wrote about what I saw to be a sharp downturn in the economy in the "rustbelt" states, particularly Michigan.
March 28, 2007
The Federal Reserve sees no need to cut interest rates in the light of adverse recent economic data, Ben Bernanke said on Wednesday.
The Fed chairman said ”to date, the incoming data have supported the view that the current stance of policy is likely to foster sustainable economic growth and a gradual ebbing in core inflation”.

July 21, 2007 My guess is that if there is an interest rate change, a cut is more likely than an increase. The key variables to be watching at this point are real estate prices and the inventory of unsold homes.
August 11, 2007 I suspect that within 6 months the Federal Reserve will be forced to lower interest rates before housing becomes a black hole.
September 11, 2007 It only means that the overall process has flaws guaranteeing it will be slow in responding to changes in the economy... and tend to over-react as a result.
September 18, 2007 I think a 4% rate is really what is needed to turn the economy back on the right course. The rate may not get there, but more cuts will be needed with employment rates down and foreclosure rates up.
October 25, 2007 How long will it be before I will be able to write: "The Federal Reserve lowered its lending rate to 4% in response to the collapse of the U.S. housing market and massive numbers of foreclosures that threaten the banking and mortgage sectors."
"Should the elevated turbulence persist, it would increase the possibility of further tightening in financial conditions for households and businesses," he said.

"Uncertainties about the economic outlook are unusually high right now," he said. "These uncertainties require flexible and pragmatic policymaking -- nimble is the adjective I used a few weeks ago."

December 11, 2007 Somehow the Fed misses the obvious.
[Image from:]
December 13, 2007 [from The Christian Science Monitor]
"The odds of a recession are now above 50 percent," says Mark Zandi, chief economist at Moody's "We are right on the edge of a recession in part because of the Fed's reluctance to reduce interest rates more aggressively." [see my comments of September 11]
January 7, 2008 The real problem now is that consumers can't rescue the economy and manufacturing, which is already weakening, will continue to weaken. We've gutted the forces that could avoid a downturn. The question is not whether there will be a recession, but can it be dampened sufficiently so that it is very short.
January 11, 2008 This is death by a thousand cuts.
January 13, 2008 [N.Y. Times]
“The question is not whether we will have a recession, but how deep and prolonged it will be,” said David Rosenberg, the chief North American economist at Merrill Lynch. “Even if the Fed’s moves are going to work, it will not show up until the later part of 2008 or 2009.
January 17, 2008 A few days ago, Anna Schwartz, nonagenarian economist, implicated the Federal Reserve as the cause of the present lending crisis [from the Telegraph - UK]:
The high priestess of US monetarism - a revered figure at the Fed - says the central bank is itself the chief cause of the credit bubble, and now seems stunned as the consequences of its own actions engulf the financial system. "The new group at the Fed is not equal to the problem that faces it," she says, daring to utter a thought that fellow critics mostly utter sotto voce.
January 22, 2008 The cut has become infected and a limb is in danger. Ben Bernanke is panicking and the Fed has its emergency triage team cutting rates... this time by 3/4%. ...

What should the Federal Reserve do now? Step back... and don't be so anxious to raise rates at the first sign of economic improvement.
Individuals and businesses need stability in their financial cost structures so that they can plan effectively and keep their ships afloat. Wildly fluctuating rates... regardless of what the absolute levels are... create problems. Either too much spending or too much fear. It's just not that difficult to comprehend. Why has it been so difficult for the Fed?

About Me

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Michigan, United States
Air Force (SAC) captain 1968-72. Retired after 35 years of business and logistical planning, including running a small business. Two sons with advanced degrees; one with a business and pre-law degree. Beautiful wife who has put up with me for 4 decades. Education: B.A. (Sociology major; minors in philosopy, English literature, and German) M.S. Operations Management (like a mixture of an MBA with logistical planning)