Cheating at the numbers game

A few days ago, a friend sent me a link on Facebook to a photo of a woman who had been a public school English teacher who wrote about how she found it impossible to assign grades to pieces of writing, particularly creative writing, done by her students. I completely agree with her. I have always said grades are worthless and mean nothing, but she confirmed that there are others out there like me.

This evening, I went on a walk with my wife and our dog and I brought up that post because we got on a whole discussion about the lack of real incentive to learn that grades are, and that, in fact, they are disincentive to do any real learning or work because they become the reason for doing anything rather than a measure of what is done.

For example: If I am really good in English and I get straight A’s with very little effort. I could do more, I could stretch myself to read harder books, write longer papers, but why should I? I already get A’s. On the flip side, I don’t do that well in Math. I get C’s most of the time. I’ve always gotten C’s. So, I must not be that good in Math. I used to try working harder, but I still never really got it, so why should I bother? I’ll always be bad in Math.

Now, take away the grades and replace them with one-on-one feedback from the teacher and periodic parent-teacher meetings instead of report cards. Now my English teacher can actually sit with me and say, “Your writing is excellent, but you know what would make it even better?” and then go on to tell me how I could IMPROVE. My Math teacher could take me aside and say, “Look, Dan, I know you can do this, but maybe you just need a little more time to grasp the concepts. Let’s make some time after school to go over this problem set again and see where you went wrong on the ones you got incorrect.” Now I’m learning not just what I got right and what I got wrong, but WHY I got them right or wrong, which will help me do better later. But with grades being the sole incentive, parents become complacent and satisfied when their students come home with “acceptable” grades. Students are either happy with the grades when they match with what is expected or upset by grades that are lower than planned for, but nothing is done for improvement. Teachers don’t care as much because parents and students are only concerned with what their grades are, not WHY they got those grades. And administrators just keep making classes bigger because if we simplify everything to a quantity, a grade, teachers can just mark work and move on to the next assessment, passing students through the classroom like widgets on an assembly line.

Then, later this evening, my wife and I watched the documentary Freakonomics, based on the book of the same name. One part of it focused on the incentive to cheat. Basically, what Levitt and Dubner propose in their book/movie, based on Levitt’s research, is that if one gives high enough incentives to people, some, if not many, of those people will cheat. So, here come the grades again.

We (parents, teachers, counselors, etc.) tell students that they have to get good grades in order to get into a good college. They have to go to a good college in order to get a good job, which in turn will lead to a good life, whatever that means. So, the incentive for good grades becomes a good life making lots of money. There may even be short term incentives such as bribes from parents — “If you get all A’s I’ll buy you a Playstation 4” — that create more immediate rewards, which are more likely to drive teens anyway since they live much more in the now than thinking about the future. If you are a student who doesn’t get good grades across the board, why wouldn’t you cheat to get the better grades? The cheater doesn’t LEARN anything that those grades are SUPPOSED to represent, but no one notices or cares, except maybe the teacher, because the cheater got good grades, so who asks any questions? In fact, cheating has become such a “norm,” that when I have busted a student for cheating, they just accept it, give a half-assed apology, and move on. I handed a paper back to a student this past year that had been plagiarized. I had written “plagiarized” and huge zero in red pen on the front of it. His response?

“Yeah, I didn’t have enough time to really do the work myself, so I copied off of a couple of web sites. You got me, Mr. Ferat. Sorry.”

And that’s it. So what did he actually learn? I don’t know, but, if I were to guess, he learned to cheat better so his teacher doesn’t catch it so easily next time.

Data is very important for understanding patterns in society, how things work, and so on, but not everything can be purely data driven. Statistics are estimates based on large samples. They are best guesses. So, we need to stop trusting numbers so much, especially in education, and get back to what really matters: learning, thinking, and being able to express those things to others. Otherwise, it’s just a game we all wind up losing.

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