The Irascible Professor SM
Irreverent Commentary on the State of Education in America Today

by Dr. Mark H. Shapiro

"I feel like a fugitive from the law of averages."...  ...Bill Mauldin .

Commentary of the Day - January 31, 2003:  The Lake Wobegon Effect - All Our High School Graduates are "Above Average".

According to the recently released "American Freshman Survey" compiled by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, high school seniors are spending less time studying for classes and reading and more time using the Internet.  A record low of 34.9% of college freshmen report having spent more than six hours per week on homework during their senior year in high school.  This is down from the high of 47.0% reported when the question was first asked in 1987.  During that same period of time the number of students reporting that they spent less than one hour per week on homework during their senior year in high school rose from 8.5% to 15.9%.

While the amount of time high school seniors spend "hitting the books" has dropped to a new low, their high school grade point averages continue to inflate.  As the chart below (from the report) shows, almost 70% of freshmen at private universities now receive A averages in high school, and more than half of the freshmen at public universities receive A averages as well.

There is no evidence that these high grades reflect improvements in student performance.  Instead, high school students have become adept at manipulating the system.  They have learned how to obtain high grades not through diligent study, but by concentrating on just those items of information that are likely to appear on exams.  Part of this trend toward "empty" grades can be attributed to the increasing pressures associated with college admissions.  Students these days feel that they can't afford anything less than A grades if they want to get into a decent college or university.  To achieve this goal they take an ever increasing number of Advanced Placement (AP) courses that carry college credit, and look good on their transcripts.

Parents join in the game by pressuring high school teachers to award high grades.  Teachers, in turn, often cave in to this pressure.  They respond by turning their classes into preparation sessions for the standardized AP tests that are required in the Advanced Placement courses.  Rather than exploring the intellectual foundations of the subject, high school teachers tend to base class discussion and quizzes on specific AP exam questions.  This "teaching to the test" helps students achieve high scores, but often at the cost of genuine understanding.

Those of us who teach at the university level are left to cope with the effects of this system of illusory accomplishment.  The majority of our incoming freshmen are ill prepared to cope with the intellectual demands of college courses -- not because they lack intelligence, but because they have not developed the study and time management skills that are needed to succeed in an environment where most learning takes place outside the classroom.  It is not surprising that many students bring to the college classroom a cynical attitude towards grades.  They do not view grades as a measure of intellectual development in a particular course or major, but rather simply as a reward for completing a series of disconnected transactions -- a reward that will help them get into graduate or professional school or to get that well-paying job after graduation.  "Tell me what I need to know to get an A in this class" has become a familiar refrain.

Students expect, from their high school experience, to be told exactly what is required to receive a particular grade.  They expect to be given "study guides" before exams that lead them by the hand through the material that is likely to appear on the exam.  And they expect tests and courses to be graded by "rubrics" that assign a fixed number of points for the completion of each item assigned.  Woe to the poor professor who sets exam questions that might require a smidgen of original thought or insight on the part of the student.  He or she is likely to hear about that in spades when it's time to fill out those teaching evaluation forms.

While their grades may suggest that most of our high school graduates are "above average", in reality many have below average "curiosity coefficients".  Many need to spend more time expanding their intellectual horizons and less on figuring out ways to "beat the system".

There is a glimmer of hope, however, in the results of the most recent freshman survey.  In 2002 more students reported having an interest in current events and political affairs than in recent years.  Compared to the all time low of 28.1% of college freshmen who viewed keeping up with politics as very important in 2000, the current number of 32.9% is a definite improvement.  However, it still is far lower than the peak value of 60.3% reported in 1966.  As uncertainties in international affairs continue to grow, we may find college students reconnecting with underlying ideas and issues.


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© 2003 Dr. Mark H. Shapiro - All rights reserved.