Adventures in Ethics and Science

Grades for sale?

Steinn apparently knows how to get me riled about wrong-headed middle school fundraising initiatives, since he nearly derailed my efforts to push through my stack of grading with his recent post about one such initiative. He quotes from a Raleigh News & Observer story:

Rosewood Middle School in Goldsboro… will sell 20 test points to students in exchange for a $20-dollar donation.

Students can add 10 extra points to each of two tests of their choosing. The extra points could take a student from a “B” to an “A” on a test or from a failing grade to a passing grade.

Rosewood’s principal Susie Shepherd rejected the idea that extra points on two tests could make a difference in a final grade.

Shepherd said she approved the idea when a parent advisory council presented it. “Last year they did chocolates and it didn’t generate anything,” Shepherd said.

However, this cash-for-points fundraiser didn’t last long:

Wayne County school administrators stopped the fundraiser, issuing a statement this morning.

“Yesterday afternoon, the district administration met with [Rosewood Middle School principal] Mrs. Shepherd and directed the the following actions be taken: (1) the fundraiser will be immediately stopped; (2) no extra grade credit will be issued that may have resulted from donations; and (3) beginning Novermber 12, all donations will be returned.”

Steinn despairs at this whole situation. I’m not liking it so much either.

This goes beyond the territory of whether extra credit is fair, since we’re not really talking about giving students extra points in exchange for doing extra school work (i.e., more of the sort of thing that is normally the basis for their grades in the first place). Rather, students were being offered a boost in their grade if they paid some money. I don’t think it matters if the money was to be directed to a worthy cause (whether buying supplies for the school, funding a field trip, or feeding hungry people); this kind of scheme changes the basis of evaluation, at least in part, to who can afford to pay.

Mastering a set of skills or learning a body of knowledge is not interchangeable with being in possession of twenty bucks.

Also, I’m skeptical of the claim that 20 extra points on two tests would make no difference to a student’s final grade. To students on the borderline between two grades, such a bump could well make a difference. And, if it was really the case that two tests made so little difference in a student’s final grade (perhaps because there were so many tests and assignments contributing to that final grade), shouldn’t we be inclined to say that the cash-for-grades fundraiser was ripping the students off, offering them something on the pretext that it would make a difference when it actually would not?

Was the principal’s claim that the extra points couldn’t make a difference innumerate or dishonest?

Granted, school budgets right now are in wretched shape. People probably have less disposable income to buy chocolate, or wrapping paper, or cookie dough, or whatever else schools might be used to selling to raise funds. But when a school raises funds in exchange for better grades, someone at the school has lost track of the central fact that schools are supposed to impart the learning their students need to earn those grades. Ideally, if a school is fulfilling its educational mission, its students are getting such awesome grades because of how much they’ve learned that there will be even less demand for extra points on tests than there is for PTA chocolate.

If you really wanted to set up a situation where students could help raise funds while simultaneously improving their grades, I’d think you’d want to have the students doing some activity that could be evaluated like school work. Maybe you could award extra credit to students who help design a classroom project or write up a persuasive funding request for it to submit to DonorsChoose, or to students who write persuasive letters making the case for more resources to state education officials, or to the op-ed page in the local newspaper. These activities don’t put cash right in the fundraising coffers, but neither do they make good grades something students think they can buy.

Given that Steinn and I are going to be dealing with a lot of former middle school students once they become college students, I think we’d be happier with students who are clear on the concept that grades are not for sale.

Comments

  1. #1 Coturnix
    November 12, 2009

    I saw this on Steinn’s blog and my jaw dropped. Then I read the principal’s quote and my jaw dropped so much it practically dislocated – a school principal with a complete absence of a moral compass!?!

  2. #2 Colin
    November 12, 2009

    I got an A- in Calc 3 and I missed an A by one point. Shepherd is a moron. QED

  3. #3 llewelly
    November 13, 2009

    This situation brought to you by the American insistence that Our Taxes Must Not Be Raised no matter what the cause.

  4. #4 csrster
    November 13, 2009

    Man, I just read the headline and thought it was a “students offered cash for getting good grades” story!

  5. #5 Stentor
    November 13, 2009

    On one hand, I agree that this is outrageous — to me, grades are a measurement, so paying for a grade is as nonsensical as paying the Weather Channel to add 5 degrees to tomorrow’s high.

    But on the other hand, I’m not terribly surprised. The view of grades as a commodity is widespread. Some places overseas have quite explicit fee-for-grade systems (I’m thinking specifically of some things I’ve read about post-Soviet Uzbekistan), but even in the US students feel entitled to good grades because they paid their tuition, and professors get leaned on to give good grades to students whose parents are big donors or who are athletes in revenue-generating sports.

  6. #6 Todd
    November 14, 2009

    I work in a public high school and I see similar scenarios, although not nearly so blatantly inappropriate, several times a year. I suspect the key to the story is that the fundraising idea was proposed by a group of teachers. I don’t want this to sound cynical, but school administrators find it hard to say no to parents. All it takes is a brief moment of stupidity on the part of an administrator and all sorts of bad ideas from parents can get a school in a whole host of trouble.

    My school almost held a fundraiser involving the students getting massages from a professional masseuse. First, there’s the idea that school is so stressful that kids need a massage to get by. Second, there’s the whole issue of adults touching minors on school property.

    The principal of Redwood Middle School isn’t immoral or incompetent. She just allowed her good-faith willingness to work with the parents in her community to cloud her judgement.

  7. #7 padraig
    November 16, 2009

    I’m considering starting a controversy in my area over a related issue.

    There is a public academic award for high school seniors that my eldest probably should be considered for. Won’t start braggin’ but he has ample credentials academically including college-level classes, community involvement, etc. Additionally he has two friends (one year younger) who imho are more qualified than him and should be mortal locks for this award next year.

    None of them will be receiving the award. Why? Because none of them has a 4.0 grade point average. The award committee has set a 4.0 as a prerequisite for consideration.

    I’m not going to go into all the GPA inflation and parental interference that this encourages and rewards. Maybe I should have set up a teacher/administrator bribery fund instead of a college fund.

  8. #8 Alex
    November 19, 2009

    Honestly, this is just cutting out the middleman. I mean who hasn’t paid 5 bucks for some tissue boxes for extra credit or regular credit.

  9. #9 Craig Heinke
    November 28, 2009

    I think Todd meant “proposed by a group of parents” rather than teachers.

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