The strange beast that is our education system

The other day, I was explaining to my students the process profs use to grade research papers, and the more I explained, the more I kept thinking, “This is insane! This whole system is insane!”

Imagine explaining this system to an alien trying to learn about the human race.

ALIEN

We would like to learn more about your species, specifically how you educate your spawn. I see you are a teacher and currently have in your hands one of your student’s papers. Could you tell me what you do with it?

ME

Well, yes. So, I had my students do research and write up their findings in this report (brandishes paper held in hands). I then read their report, and as I do, that report generates a feeling in me.

ALIEN

A feeling?

ME

Yes. Do I feel the report is well done or poorly written? Is it thorough, interesting, informative, or whatever?

ALIEN

You get a feeling of how well the report met your expectations and of how well you feel the student has mastered the task you set for them.

ME

Right, that is it. Then, once I’ve read it, I convert that feeling into a number.

ALIEN

Uh ….. As I understood you humans, I did not think feelings were quantifiable.

ME

Well, they’re not, but when grading I convert my feeling into a number.

ALIEN

So, for example, a paper might make you feel a six-hundred-and-twelve.

ME

What? No. We convert our feelings into a number between zero and one hundred. Like, a percent, right. So, sixty-three percent, eighty percent.

ALIEN

How do you choose which feeling gets which number?

ME

My school tells me which feelings get which numbers. For example, if I feel the report is satisfactory, I assign a number between sixty and sixty-seven. If it’s good, I score it between sixty-eight and seventy-nine. Excellent gets eighty to eighty-nine, and outstanding gets ninety to one hundred.

ALIEN

Why do those feelings get those numbers?

ME

Because that’s how we’ve always done it.

ALIEN

How do you choose a specific number within the range for a given feeling? How do you choose whether to give a sixty-three or sixty-four?

ME

I pick whatever feels right.

ALIEN

Uh …. Let’s circle back to that later. What happens next?

ME

Well, I assign scores on everything they do including tests and papers, and we calculate the average.

ALIEN

Tests—when you score a test out of a hundred, is that based on your feeling, too?

ME

Oh, no. The test score measures how many answers they got right out of a hundred.

ALIEN

So, the number you assign to tests is an objective metric of the answers the student got right while the number for papers is based on your … feeling.

ME

Right. You’re getting it.

ALIEN

How can you average those numbers together? They measure different things! One—a test score—is an objective measure of the number of questions correctly answered, the other is an arbitrarily assigned number for a feeling you had when reading a report. You can’t average numbers together when they measure different things and get any kind of meaningful answer. That would be as meaningful as taking the the temperature outside and your age and then averaging those two numbers. Sure, mathematically you can do it, but the answer doesn’t have any meaning.

ME

Yeah, well, we have to do that so we can give the student a single grade at the end of the semester.

ALIEN

You give them a single grade at the end? A score out of a hundred?

ME

Yes. Well, then of course we convert that number out of a hundred into a letter.

ALIEN

What! A letter? Like, “H”?

ME

No, that would be silly. We convert their score out of one hundred into either an A, B, C, D or F.

ALIEN

You missed E

ME

We don’t use E.

ALIEN

Why don’t you use E!

ME

Because we don’t need it. We need either an A, B, C, D or F so that we can then convert that letter into a number.

ALIEN

You’re kidding. Back into a number between zero and a hundred again?

ME

No, that would be redundant. We convert those letters to a grade point average, or GPA, which is a number between zero and four. Well, some places use a scale between zero and four-point-three.

ALIEN

Four-point-three!

ME

I’ve heard of some places that even go to four-point-five.

ALIEN

(whispers) Why in the name of the cosmos do you do that?

ME

Why? Because this is how you measure how competent a student is in their field of study. Look, if you know a better way of taking objective measures of right and wrong, combining them with feelings of performance, and converting all that into a score out of four, or four-point-three (or four-point-five), well, you let me know.

ALIEN

What on earth do you do with this GPA?

ME

Oh, students’ entire, future adult life depends on it. Their GPA determines what career they will get, whether they qualify for scholarships, or if they can get into grad school. That, in turn, influences how much money they’ll earn through their lifetime, the friends they’ll make, maybe the spouse they’ll find, the standard of living their children will experience. You know. Everything.

ALIEN

I, uh … I think I left the oven on back home. I’m gonna leave you now to go check. Maybe I’ll be back in a thousand years.

***

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2 thoughts on “The strange beast that is our education system

Add yours

  1. It is a bit crazy! We do use rubrics for our papers that help a bit but there still is a “feeling” in terms of 63 or 64. We have also read 1 million papers so our “feeling” does have some experiential grounding :o)

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