“D-minus? But I memorized EVERYTHING!”

That title is a direct quote from a student last week; his implication being that my biology test was too difficult.  It sounds to me like my test worked perfectly.  Webster’s Dictionary defines “test” as “a set of questions or problems for determining one’s knowledge and abilities.” 

In order for a test to determine one’s knowledge and abilities, it must ask for more than the person is capable of.  A test must push beyond a person’s limit in order to show where that limit is.

In 2009 Andy Bolton set a new world record deadlift: 1008.6 pounds.  The way Andy discovered how much he could lift was to increase the weight until he could no longer lift it. 

Today’s 10th grade students have spent their entire schooling under the shadow of No Child Left Behind. Predictably, these students often subscribe to the notion that if good teaching is happening, then all students will score highly on exams.  A bell-curve grade distribution is, to them, evidence of failed teaching. 

Often, today’s teens describe good teaching as a three step process:  1) teacher tells students exactly what is on the exam; 2) students memorize everything; and 3) students regurgitate the “right” answers and everyone gets an “A”.

Many students have learned to equate learning with test preparation.  To them, learning means memorizing information and parroting it back on the test.   Last week’s biology exam covered cellular transport processes – diffusion, osmosis, and so forth.  I know all of my students could say “osmosis is the diffusion of water across a selectively permeable membrane.”  Then again, so could a parrot. And the D-minus student and the parrot would likely have equal comprehension of what they were saying.

I write exams such that about 60% of the questions fall in the “knowledge” level of cognitive function (Mr. Gates, look up “Bloom’s Taxonomy”).  The remaining 40% of questions require some higher-order thinking skills, and by design appear quite mysterious to the student who simply “memorized everything.”  I analyzed this particular exam and found it contained exactly 60% knowledge-level questions.  22% of the questions were “comprehension” level, 10% “application”, and the remaining 8% were “analysis” level or above. 

Memorize definitions, and you can answer 60% of these questions and earn a solid D-minus.  Understand the concepts, and you might score in the “C” or “B” range.  Want an “A”?  Then you must be able to apply your knowledge, analyze new information, and draw solid conclusions.

“But Mr. Reber, don’t you want us all to get “A’s” so you’ll look like a good teacher?”  Another direct quote, with another direct answer: NO!  First, I’m far more concerned with being a good teacher than with looking like a good teacher.  A class roster full of “A’s” might create an illusion of quality good enough to for Oprah, but it’s not good enough for me (and Bill “if you can’t make it good, at least make it look good” Gates doesn’t have to like it, either). 

More importantly, if everyone gets “A’s” then either the grades are fabricated or the class is nowhere near challenging enough for the students – the latter perhaps being a conscience-easing route to the former.  Either way, it’s not good teaching by my standards.

I could open a gym and churn out countless deadlift champions.  It’s easy – I’ll just equip the gym only with barbells 30 pounds and lighter, and then label everyone a champion.  “We’re all champions” is a good sales pitch, but such “champions” will carry little weight outside the gym walls.

T.S. Elliot said “only those who go too far can possibly find out how far they can go.”  I want all my students to find out how far they can go, and to do that I have to push them past their limits.  On that last exam, 34% of students made “C” grades, 38% scored higher, while only 28% scored lower.  Looks like I need to make the next exam a bit tougher.

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Comments (21)

  1. “I’m far more concerned with being a good teacher than with looking like a good teacher.” LOVE it!

  2. I told one of my “Learning Focused” consultants from Delaware Department of Education something similar, although much less eloquent. Judging by the look on his face, I apparently grew three heads! I could understand that type of confused look coming from a students, but from someone charged with good teaching practices?! Surprisingly enough, my students didn’t look too surprised when I said, “If everyone gets an ‘A’ then my standards are too low.” They didn’t question it, because it made sense to them. Why is this concept so difficult for indoctrinated education “kool-aid drinkers” to understand?

    By the way, I love your test analysis. I should do the same with my tests, but our base “D” is 68.5, which I still feel is too much for lower-order of thinking skills.

  3. I apologize for my earlier typos. I was typing excitedly!

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  5. The philosphy is great, the application a miserable failure. I realized this as I sat in an advanced math class at Virginia Tech with a professor visiting from the UK. As the results for the first test came in and the parrots who were fighting to keep their positions on the Dean’s list got their D- all heck broke loose. You see, in America grades matter, they matter far more than they should. Your grades open doors for the best schools and the best on campus job interviews. They sort and rank you into an academic caste system. Whether it is NCLB or ‘just the way its done’ when one teacher bucks the system it causes damages to the students blessed with that teacher. In my case I chuckled, the student with the most God given brain horsepower but a real lack of motivation, to find myself scored at the top of the class, to see a visiting professor struggling to grasp the concept of GPA based class rankings and to see the top students, in their junior year of an excellent Computer Science program, realizing that simple hard work and playing by the rules didn’t count for much in the real world.

    Simple IQ tests can generate nearly the same bell curve as your carefully constructed biology test. School exams should ideally be used first as one tool for teachers to assess how well they are teaching and only then students should be provided feedback on specific areas where they are deficient and then simply told whether they are performing adequately or need to work harder.

    • I empathize with you Dave. I experienced the same sort of problem today in fact!
      Steve, I disagree with the “School exams should ideally be used first as one tool for teachers to assess how well they are teaching and only then students should be provided feedback on specific areas where they are deficient and then simply told whether they are performing adequately or need to work harder.” I dont think school exams should be used at all as a tool for teachers to assess how well they are teaching, which falls into the current accountability debate. For instance, I teach Social Studies, students have to have some background knowledge about their community, environment and the idea that there are other people like us in other parts of the world in order for them to be successful. I believe this is how most subjects are. With that being said, it is difficult to measure how well a teacher is teaching from that school exam. I cannot cram all the above mentioned concepts, plus the new concepts into 1 year. Which would indicate that I am not solely responsible for what that student regurgitates on that test, it is a compilation of all the teachers that have impacted that student throughout their life. In Dave’s case he is referring to a test on a basic concept, that can perhaps be used to measure how well a teacher is teaching, but I feel that the bigger picture which sometimes goes forgotten is how well the student grasps the concept.

      As I mentioned earlier, I experienced a similar situation today. Throughout the unit the students appear to grasp the concepts. I know this from informal assessments. But, for some reason, one set of students, have trouble getting the information from their brain onto the test. This is a perfect example of why a school exam should NOT be used to measure a teacher’s success.

      I do agree however, that grades do matter. A prime example of this is today a representative from a local high school came to speak to the 8th graders today about the Science and Tech program offered in that school, with AP classes, etc. The woman advised the students that each quarters grade from 7th grade last year and their first quarter grade from 8th grade factor into their requirement for GPA in order to even be considered to attend. about 50% of the 8th graders want to go and about 40% of the 8th graders failed my most recent test. I’m sure that this notion got them thinking and for the serious student even brought about some concern, but I do not think that it matters to them. Dave was referring to 10th graders and I am referring to 8th graders. Two totally different types of students with different attitudes and such towards life and learning, yet the same mentality towards education. I see the same problems with my students that Dave sees with his. It is this generation of students. They do not value education and some do not even value morals. They look at me like Erin said, “as if I’ve grown three heads,” when I redirect and guide an out of line student and advise them that they are to respect their elders and not cuss out, talk back, get louder than, or disrespect a teacher. This idea is like Sanskrit to them.

  6. Reading Reber’s “But I memorized everything” piece in the light of Cerruti’s observation ” …in America grades matter… far more than they should.” we see one facet of the obstacle course public school teachers face every day when they are dedicated to developing the whole student as well as teaching their subject well.

  7. Interesting article, but I am not really sure what NCLB has to do with anything. It does make a handy little scapegoat for teachers, though.

    • “Handy little scapegoat for teachers”, Eh? Well we shall see.

    • It ties into NCLB because of the prevailing attitude of students – a different attitude than was prevalent pre-NCLB – specifically, the belief that if all students don’t score highly then something is wrong with the teacher. Many students today seem unable to understand the connection between their own efforts and their own achievement. The whole concept of NCLB/AYP is that student achievement is determined only by the teacher’s effort/skill/etc., and this is wholly inaccurate. Here’s a little multi-part essay I wrote a while back to look at AYP: http://www.examiner.com/k-12-in-topeka/adequate-yearly-diddily-poop

  8. “School exams should ideally be used first as one tool for teachers to assess how well they are teaching”

    Steve – if 100% of students were high-caliber and applied themselves 100%, then MAYBE an exam would be some measure of how well the teacher is teaching. In the real world, exams are a measure of how well the STUDENT is LEARNING. Though correlated, these are not the same thing.

    Case(s) in point: many times over the years I’ve had students in class whose only “meal” for the day was the dope they had before school or over lunch. Now Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, Arne Duncan, and President Obama might believe that these student’s test scores reflect my teaching….. but I’d beg to differ.

    • Why can’t assessments but used for both? Perhaps instead of making your test harder (in order to keep your bell curve) you reflect on the data and see where students are struggling so you can adjust your teaching or to see what needs to be re-taught. I don’t think test scores reflect the quality of a teacher’s teaching but they can be used as a tool for reteaching and reflection for both the teacher and the student.

      I was also wondering whether or not students had the opportunity to practice those higher-ordered thinking skills in the classroom or if you just assumed that they could perform those tasks on your test by miraculously applying their knowledge into more difficult critical thinking and analysis questions on your test.

  9. Dear Mr. Reber,
    I just read your excellent piece entitled, “D-minus? But I memorized EVERYTHING!’” and I just want to say, three cheers to you! I will re-post the link to your wonderful article on my Facebook page in the hopes that others read it, but how do we get it in front of a national audience?

    I’ve closely followed the recent surge on the topic of education in the media, and I’m so aggravated I could spit. Two Oprah shows, Meet the Press, the MSNBC Education Nation, and the Teacher Town Hall, and nary a teacher in sight. MSNBC DID give teachers a voice by hosting the Teacher Town Hall online, and I did participate, but it was simply teachers talking to teachers. We were preaching to the choir.

    And so my question is this: How do we get teachers in front of a national audience like Bill Gates, Michelle Rhee, and Geoffrey Canada had on Oprah? Why are we relegated to an online chat where we talk only to each other, instead of being given a seat on those shows? This wise, informative piece by Dave Reber is a perfect example of a side of the story that needs to be told.

    Thank yu, Mr. Reber, for taking the time to write it.
    Kelly Flynn
    Former teacher and author of Kids, Classrooms, and Capitol Hill: A Peek Inside the Walls of America’s Public Schools.

  10. More than just holding students accountable for test scores and better work, NCLB is NOT a teacher’s scapegoat, as someone mentioned above. It is the card that allows students to pass Go and collect their high school diploma’s w/o taking the proper steps to get there. A child can’t read or do math? No problem. Ma and Pa Clueless will sign a piece of paper and forward the child on. I guess my big problem with society’s reaction to our claims (I am a HS English teacher) is that if we’re a triangle of responsibility — parent, student, teacher — when does pressure get put on the parents? If we’re being judged based on our test scores, who takes into account the variables of a parent’s reinforcing work ethic/habits at home, how many hours a child sleeps before the test, what breakfast the child ate on test day, or, as someone pointed out, what drugs the child’s on? Does our government take these variables into account? If not, they’re setting this country up for the biggest failure education has ever seen. Will they finally take responsible actions then?

    • that is what i keep saying! we can work our butts off at school, but if our kids go home to a non-structured, low education priority home, what we are doing is pointless!

  11. Kelly – how do we get the word out to the general public? Good question. Speaking as one who has been blocked from posting on Oprah’s Facebook page, I can say it’s hard to do when the opposition is so well-financed. I guess my opinions didn’t meet the Oprah standard of school Rhee-form rhetoric, so they closed the Gates on me……

  12. how are you!This was a really impressive post!
    I come from itlay, I was fortunate to look for your website in bing
    Also I learn a lot in your Topics really thanks very much i will come again

  13. I have a son who graduated with high honors from high school and is now struggling in college. I blame it on teachers who spoonfeed students, and allow everyone to get good grades. My son is very bright, however, he doesn’t know how to study, take good notes, or write a great paper. He simply breezed through high school, unchallenged. We are not doing students favors by giving open-book tests or answers to memorize the night before the test. We are graduating kids with the misconception that they are going to sail through college with little to no effort. Thinking of the long-term effects I have to wonder what this substandard teaching style will do to our future society. I can foresee the United States losing its status as a world leader to other countries who “do it right” when it comes to educating. Way to go, Dave! Keep up the good work. I wish my son had had a great teacher like you.

  14. I am so happy to have found this site. This expresses my opinion completely. Children no longer know how to think and predict because they are only taught to memorize for the test.

  15. I would venture to say that spoon feeding students info has created a generation with no threshold for frustration and a effete attitude towards academics. Thanks for saying what many of us feel.

  16. Fantastic post, just goes to show how the school system is focused on memorization rather than critical thinking skills.

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