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Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2004 / 28 Elul, 5764

Mark Goldblatt

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Consumer Reports

From A to F | For me, it's a sign of summer's end as cer tain as leaves chang ing colors: Teary-eyed freshmen turning up at my office to complain about their English placement-test results. How is it possible, they want to know, that they got A's in English classes throughout high school, took honors English courses as seniors . . . and still managed to fail an entry-level college exam that requires them only to analyze a few short reading passages and write a rudimentary narrative essay?

There are two answers to their question, one straightforward, one complex.

The straightforward answer is that high school grades nowadays are virtually meaningless; the feel-good pedagogy which has dominated American education for the last 35 years has brought with it grade inflation on a grotesque scale.

According to Higher Education Research Institute's yearly survey, in 2003 a record 46.6 percent of college freshmen reported earning A averages in high school — compared with 17.6 percent in 1968. On the other end of the spectrum, students earning an average of C+ or below shrank to a record low 5.1 percent, down from 23.1 percent in 1968.

This defiance of the bell curve ranks as quite an accomplishment, given that students are studying less and less. Only 34 percent reported studying or working on assignments six or more hours per week in high school, the second-lowest number since HERI began asking the question in 1987.

High-school grades, therefore, bear little relationship to how dedicated a student is, even less to what he's actually learned. The 12th grade A has become like the kindergarten gold star: It pleases the recipient, puts a smile on his parents' faces, but testifies to little that's tangible.

And when all those self-esteem A's collide with the bell-curved reality of a college placement exam, tears begin to flow.

The more complex answer as to how a decade of English classes can consistently fail to prepare incoming freshmen for the minimal show of language skills required by a college-placement exam lies in the reading and writing curricula of elementary, intermediate and high schools.

By emphasizing creativity and downplaying correctness, teachers court students' emotional expressions rather than their logical responses; stories and poems, which are preferred nowadays as pedagogical tools to newspaper and magazine articles, mean whatever the students want them to mean. There are no wrong answers, only different interpretations.

But of course there are wrong answers. Last semester, for example, I separated a freshman class into study groups and asked them to summarize a newspaper article about the practice of honor killings in India. The lead paragraph recounted the story of a young woman shot by her father and "left for dead." After 15 minutes, I noticed none of the groups had begun writing their summaries. I asked what was wrong, and one student volunteered that there was an error in the story; she pointed to the sentence in which the young woman was "left for dead" and asked how it was possible she could still be alive in the next paragraph.

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The rest of the class nodded; the article made no sense.

The expression "left for dead" had stumped them. But "left for dead" is hardly an exotic turn of phrase. And even if they'd never encountered it before, you'd think by now they would have acquired the wherewithal to deduce its meaning from the context. But such skills are rarely stressed. Teachers want students to like what they read; whether or not they get the sense of it is secondary.

So, too, with writing. For example, grammar textbooks instruct students to use a comma and a coordinating conjunction to join independent clauses. But in the last 20 years, I've had perhaps a dozen students who, at the start of the semester, could define the term "clause," even fewer who could define "coordinating conjunction."

The rules of punctuation are indecipherable without a basic grammatical vocabulary. So even if students have a good ear for language rhythms, even if they can locate the natural breaks in sentences, they don't know what punctuation to use. They might guess right 75 percent of the time, which still leaves a quarter of their sentences with mechanical errors. In college, that translates into an F.

How can you tell where your high-schooler stands? Here's a quick home test to determine if he's receiving decent preparation for college level English: Ask him to compose a few paragraphs about whether he enjoys writing. If he goes on and on about how writing allows him to express himself and be creative — and does so in sentences riddled with grammar mistakes — then he's ticketed for a remedial class.

Bank on it.

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JWR contributor Mark Goldblatt teaches at SUNY's Fashion Institute of Technology. His new novel is "Africa Speaks". Comment by clicking here.

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© 2004, Mark Goldblatt