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Straight-A ignorance

MICHAEL SKUBE, winner of a Pulitzer Prize for criticism, teaches journalism at Elon University in North Carolina.

IF YOU WISH to feel the weight of the years, hear the echo of debates that cannot be silenced and feel yet again the hopelessness that things can ever be put right, spend some time with two reports released recently by the U.S. Department of Education.

The year is 2007, but it might as well be 1991 or 1983 or 1967 or any number of points in our history when brows were furrowed and hands were wrung over the state of education in the United States. We are at it again, this time with a variation on a familiar theme: grade inflation.

The reports document what many already knew: High school students’ grade-point averages keep going up, up, up -- and what students actually know stays where it’s always been. If anything, students seem to know even less, GPAs notwithstanding.

How can this be, when reform after high-minded reform has purported to identify the problems and has recommended measures for turning things around? Are we never going to get this right?

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The first thing to be said is that “reform,” in American education, does not mean what it ordinarily means. Rather than implying a new direction, reform in American education is the permanent state of affairs. The schools would not know how to proceed without the mandate of some blue-ribbon task force to alter the game plan. And so they reform and reform, and nothing much changes.

The more important point, made plain by the reports (called the National Assessment of Educational Progress) is that high-school GPAs are all but meaningless. For too many students, the luster is lost once they arrive at college and are expected to know certain rudimentary things -- an acquaintance, for example, with the geography of the world, the contours of U.S. history, the parts of speech. There is, in other words, little correlation between the GPA and what a graduating high school student knows.

The reports make it hard to conclude otherwise, and yet, inexplicably, the GPA is the gold standard for the admissions office. In a survey of 21,000 transcripts, the reports revealed a mean GPA in 2005 of 2.98 on a 4.0 scale, corresponding to a B. In 1991, the mean GPA was markedly lower -- 2.68. One would infer improvement. To the contrary, despite accumulating more credits and taking more college preparatory courses, students who graduated in 2005 did worse on standardized tests, particularly in reading.

The language in which the reports were announced might have been near-apocalyptic, but its broader implications were little different from the foreboding that attended “A Nation at Risk,” the 1983 study best remembered for the puzzling phrase “rising tide of mediocrity.” This time, the authors were straightforward: “We’re sleeping through a crisis,” David P. Driscoll, the Massachusetts commissioner of education, said at a news conference announcing the results. The question is whether this is a new crisis or the same long-running crisis, and we’ve been comatose the whole time.

Something is awry when students who have gotten nothing but A’s through high school suddenly need remedial writing (and reading) once they reach college. If there are victims, it is the students, although they are not entirely blameless. They are victims of a culture that places on them relentless pressure to “succeed,” to get into the best college possible, to get the best grades possible, to get that internship, to have a job lined up the instant diplomas are dispensed and tasseled caps are thrown aloft.

What is the line from the old Peggy Lee song? “Is that all there is ... ?” If that’s all there is to an education, it has become an adjunct of commerce, with no claims of its own. The schools, if that’s the case, might as well be trade schools. Knowledge for its own sake is valueless.

The alarming truth is that more young people than adults would agree with those words. Babbittry and anti-intellectualism in America are an old story. The absence of curiosity in a child, even a teenager, is another matter, and a disquieting one it is. Research has become another aspect of Googling. A few rapid taps on the keyboard yield a paragraph that might (or might not) be germane, and, by the legerdemain of copy-and-paste, “content” is added to one’s paper, words changed here and there so as not to plagiarize. Or not changed. Why go to the trouble of reading when you can plug in what you need?

In such a way do students only appear to have acquired knowledge. Little has been read, reflected on or absorbed. Little has been written that can be called composition. Nothing has been reinforced in the way the student weighs evidence, chooses words, structures a sentence, frames an argument. It’s in this sense that students allow themselves to be complicit in knowing less than they could. They have bought into the epistemology that shaped them and are complacent captives of it.

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There is no reason, then, for brows to be furrowed or hands to be wrung when it turns out they know so little. It’s been before our eyes all the while. The only surprise is that we should be surprised. What else did we expect? If the GPAs are as meaningless as the learning, maybe it’s time to call a charade a charade.


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