Enhancing the Enhanced 
by John Callaghan
May 1999

Editors' Note:  John Callaghan (SP?) is a teacher at Dakota High School, Chippewa Valley Schools, Macomb, Michigan.  He wrote his letter in response to a district-wide proposal for weighted or enhanced grades for students who take AP classes.  It should be noted that in the end, a "compromise" was reached.  Students who take the AP exam and score a 3 or better will earn an enhanced grade.
I read the School Improvement Proposal on enhancing grades for advanced placement and honors' courses. The proposal requested that I please explain, "based on fact and reality," why I may not want to endorse the proposal. Please understand right off that I understand the proposal (we received a slightly different version of it last year) and that I would never question the sincerity of the proposers. At Dakota we have from time to time also questioned the heterogeneity of our classes, and some parents have implied, as the proposal also implies, that we have brought about the "...steady deterioration of the level of academic offerings and opportunities in the district (12)." 

Just yesterday I was in a room of 105 freshmen and four teachers (English, science, math and social studies), supervising a project in which students of all ability and maturation levels were working on a project about economics. They were studying maps, drawing graphs, calculating costs and taxes, measuring distances and densities, reading and writing definitions and descriptions. They were also discussing how best to negotiate with the other "nations" in the room in order to get what their "nation" needed without giving up too much of what they already had in natural resources. Everybody was working with an intensity you rarely see in the traditional classroom. I even saw one girl look up ftom her work and ask, "Where's George? I need him now." She then spotted him watching another group measuring longitude and latitude on a huge wall map. She hollered across the room, "Hey, George, that's not your job. Get over here and help me with this graph." George looked guilty and hustled over to do his job. George's response and motivation wasn't coming from a teacher or even from one of the "brighter" students in the room. It was coming from positive peer pressure and was an example of the kind of negotiation and motivation that goes on in the real world today and will be going on when these kids graduate. of negotiation and motivation that goes on in the real world today and will be going on when these kids graduate, 

I tell this anecdote as an introduction to my lack of enthusiasm for the proposal and as evidence that what some people perceive as a lowering of standards may just simply be a new way to get more students involved in real learning. I know other school districts have inflated some of the grades for certain courses. That is why one will see a high school senior in some schools graduate with a four point plus GPA on a four-point scale. I also know that if our district adopts an inflation policy that I can live with it and that I will accommodate as best I can, but I don't think it is necessary. In fact, we would be bowing to pressure from the few, I feel, who want further privilege for their already privileged clients. I could better accept an inflation policy if it gave extra credit or enhancement to so-called non-academic achievements that I feel would better represent our entire student population. For example, I recently saw a wedding cake designed by some of our less "academically" able students that was so impressive I wanted to buy it. I was also impressed with the incredible sophistication of the car design some of our students developed in their CAD classes. Once again the projects involved reading, writing, speaking and listening with math, English, business techniques, graphics, and both physics and chemistry, all at the same time. It's what we call integration of curriculum. 

I am reluctant, therefore, to endorse something that may compromise the development of that kind of integration in our curriculum, especially if we further separate our best students from that integration. I don't think it is fair to the majority of students nor is it really fair to that privileged minority because they may miss out on experiencing real life situations that will serve them just as well in the future as academic rewards and accolades. But my concern goes beyond even that; inflating the grades may further increase the polarity I see developing among our have and have-not students, a polarity that resonates with tension, resentment, and at times, even violence. You can probably tell that I read the proposal on the day after the tragedy in Colorado. At the time, I thought: We educators and parents still don't get it, nor are we likely to get it any time soon. As a nation and as public educators, we on paper are committed to universal education. I'm sure most mission statements in most school districts make some kind of reference to the right all students have to an education. Yet we don't practice what we preach- not really: we still organize and structure our courses and curriculum in such a way that "academics" are primary. And we reward the academic learners in many ways. We not only give them A's, scholarships and public praise, but we also label them "good," "winner ... .. bright," and "successful." They usually represent 15-20% of any student population The other 80-85% by our implied definition of "success" become by comparison losers (we use the euphemism "average"), 

I am sharing with you my thoughts as a teacher in the district and as a believer in serving as many of our students fairly and equally as we possibly can. Yet I'm not just a teacher in the district. I'm the parent of three "average" sons (two have graduated with unspectacular GPAs and are now in "average" colleges). We have, on the other hand, an 8th grade daughter who is fairly "bright," gets good grades and likes school. She learned many things about school from her brothers, but she was in integrated programs and in thematic classes that her brothers seldom got to experience. She might a few years from now take one of the AP courses here at Dakota. We would encourage her to do sowhether the grade is enhanced or not. We would base our encouragement on the content of the course and on the possibility of getting college credit and on nothing else. 

The proposal claims that we have done a disservice to our children. "Had the district awarded additional points for Honors and Advanced Placement courses all along, hundreds of our students could have received scholarships based on their grade point averages, who did not (12)." 1 find this claim hard to accept. I suppose that if one can say that some students with higher GPAs got scholarships than those with lower GPAs and that more students would have taken Honors and AP classes if the points were inflated and, therefore, would have higher GPAs and more scholarships, one could draw that conclusion. But I don't see it as a disservice. I see it as more evidence of how we worship at the altar of grades and GPAs and not at the altar of real learning. I agree that kids should take on more challenges but I really can't blame them for taking the less demanding courses because our focus and therefore their focus, is on grades, not on learning or on taking a challenge. And shame on any college or university that bases admittance and/or financial aid primarily on GPA. In fact, though, most of the colleges and universities rely on other factors than GPA (such as ACT/SAT scores and social/extracurricular participation) for such things as admittance and financial aid and scholarships. 

Let me give you an experience I had as a parent about grades. One of my sons was in the seventh grade and had a science project that was fairly extensive and demanded some real research (not just the usual regurgitation type most projects demand). He did his experiments and graphed the results; he read passages in books and articles in journals and magazines on the phenomenon he was investigating; and he spentseveral hours writing up the results and then word-processed his final draft. We participated in many of the activities, sometimes indirectly (hints and suggestions), and sometimes directly ("The assignment doesn't ask for that so don't put it in!"). The one thing we noticed, though, as he developed his data was his growing interest in and fascination with the topic itself He got an A- on the final result and was proud of himself But we couldn't help ourselves and had to ask: "What do you feel best about? The grade or what you learned?" His response: "Mom and Dad, you've got to be kidding. The grade, of course!" That broke our hearts. 

I hope my explanation is based enough on fact and reality to at least let the proposers know where I am coming from and that my objections are not personal, but based on my experience as a teacher and as a parent. If we are going to inflate the grades, let's inflate the grades for all achievement, academic and otherwise. At Dakota we are committed to integration of curriculum (even though our current academic, six- hour schedule makes integration complicated). We are also committed to inclusion, variety and choice, and as much heterogeneity as possible (especially at the 9t" and 10th grade levels); we know the better students can serve as models for the less able students. That is not just an ideal. I've seen it work dramatically (see above example). It works especially well if we design our assignments and projects in such a way as to include all learning styles and levels. Inflating grades for just the academic student, therefore, compromises our approach to how we can best serve the entire Dakota community. 


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