Tag Archives: international baccalaureate

Frustration!

I am about two thirds of the way through reading a writing assignment by my twelfth graders and I can feel the frustration boiling inside me. Sometimes they do well, but this time around it feels like we are back to square one. It’s like everything I taught them about grammar and essay structure (not to mention sentence structure and punctuation) just flew out the window.

And the worst thing is, they have their IB exams in two weeks. All I can think right now is, please don’t let them write so poorly on the exams!

A little background information. I teach Japanese students in Japan who have been in an immersion program, studying in an IB course and taking most of their classes in English, since they were in elementary school. We are in Japan, so they are not immersed when they leave the classroom, but they have studied English in an “immersion” academic setting for a long time. So why do they still refuse to pay attention to grammar, sentence structure, and mechanics? I just read an essay that was one long paragraph without any indention or breaks between ideas! An essay!

Take a deep breath. They have their good days and their bad days. Clearly this was an off day for them.

It is hard getting students to understand that writing is more than putting ideas on paper. Writing in English is like learning a whole other language. It is different from spoken English. They need to think about the rules and the conventions. Not indenting paragraphs is unacceptable, in my book.

But I need to put myself in their shoes. Their first language is Japanese, which is a totally different language with completely different conventions. Even the way they organize an essay is different, not to mention that they use a writing system which is a combination of traditional Chinese characters mixed with two Japanese phonetic alphabets.

However, I still think they should be able to do better. Even though I teach English through content, I make sure to give them language support by teaching them about grammar and sentence structure rules. I don’t spend days and days teaching grammar out of context, but I make sure that we cover the basics and I expect my students to know the basic language for talking about language, such as parts of speech, basic sentence types, clause structure, verb tense, and so on.

Some students get it, and they put effort into monitoring their grammar. The effort they put in is so worth it, because after a while their written language becomes much more fluent than their peers. It is a pleasure to read fluent language. But choppy, riddled-with-errors, sloppy language is like…… torture.

But this is my job. I am an English teacher, specifically an English teacher to ELLs. They all have their struggles. I so rarely get to read fluent English. I accept that. But I think they could do better. They just need to pay attention to the rules of the language and revise! How do I get them to pay attention and revise??

There will always be some students who are great thinkers but who just don’t understand that the way you say something, the way you put your thoughts into words is also important. How can I get my students to understand that they will be judged and criticized and disrespected just because their English doesn’t sound fluent? People can be harsh. If my students go out there into the English speaking world, they will be in for a surprise. I sometimes wonder how universities deal with international students whose written English lacks fluency? I have seen many Japanese and Chinese students go off to university in America or Canada or the UK…. and I always wonder, will they be in for a harsh wake up call when they turn in a paper that has so many language errors?

Maybe I am being too critical. I can’t expect them to write fluently. But I can expect them to use a subject before a verb…..right? They might not ever get third person singular verb agreement down perfectly…. but everyone can indent a paragraph, right?

Well….. back to it……..

Grade inflation in the US is part of the culture….but it doesn’t have to be

One thing that I have realized since I began teaching internationally is that in the United States, grade inflation is such a part of the culture that it has become completely normal.

When I was a high school student, I expected to get all A’s and B’s, without working too hard. Sometimes I had to put in the extra time to make sure I got an A and not a B. But I don’t think I ever got a C in high school. I will admit that I cared about grades probably more than the average student. I was in honors and a couple AP classes. But I don’t think I had to work that hard to pull off all A’s and B’s. I definitely found time to have a social life and my part-time job at KFC.

And the funny thing is, when I applied to colleges with my weighted 4.0 GPA, I didn’t get into several schools that I thought I might get into, including UC Santa Barbara, which has a reputation as a party school. Which tells you that universities are probably very aware that grade inflation is rampant.

It should be stated that my high school was just a regular public school in Southern California with a large population of students and it wasn’t known for having a stellar academic program or anything. It didn’t have a bad reputation either; it was just a normal suburban high school. I know that other schools, some private schools in particular, have much higher standards when it comes to grading. However, I think that on average, most students in America experience a similar situation to what I went through.

A couple years ago when I started teaching in an International Baccalaureate program in a secondary school in Japan, I finally realized that my understanding of grades was based on a system that has all but eliminated D’s and F’s.

In the IB program, we use what are called “assessment criteria” when we assess student work. For example, if I grade a literary analysis essay by a ninth grader, I would use a rubric with three criteria: content, organization, and style and language mechanics. Each criterion goes from a scale of 0-10, with 10 being a very successful performance in that criterion.

Here is the assessment criteria for “content” so that you can see what I mean:

Criterion A: Content (receptive and productive)                                                    Maximum: 10

Achievement level Level descriptor
0 The student does not reach a standard described by any of the descriptors below.
1–2
  • The student demonstrates very little understanding of the text and topic, and little or no awareness of the author’s choices. There is little or no detail, development or support.
  • In creative work, pieces show very limited imagination or sensitivity; the student rarely employs literary features, or employs literary and/or nonliterary features that do not serve the context or intention.
  • The use of terminology is missing, inconsistent and/or incorrect.
3-4
  • The student demonstrates limited understanding of the text and topic, and sometimes shows an awareness of the author’s choices, although detail, development and/or support are insufficient.
  • In creative work, pieces show limited imagination or sensitivity; the student attempts to employ literary and/or non-literary features; these sometimes serve the context and intention.
  • The use of terminology is sometimes accurate and appropriate.
5-6
  • The student demonstrates a sufficient understanding of the text and topic, and an awareness of the author’s choices, using adequate detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect some imagination and sensitivity; the student generally employs literary and/or non-literary features that serve the context and intention.
  • Terminology is usually accurate and appropriate.
7-8
  • The student demonstrates a good understanding of the text, topic and the author’s choices, using substantial detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect imagination and sensitivity; the student employs literary and/or non-literary features that serve the context and intention.
  • Relevant terminology is used accurately and appropriately.
9-10
  • The student demonstrates a perceptive understanding of the text, topic and the author’s choices, consistently using illustrative detail, development and support.
  • In creative work, pieces reflect a lot of imagination and sensitivity; the student employs literary and/or non-literary features effectively that serve the context and intention.
  • The student shows a sophisticated command of relevant terminology, and uses it appropriately.

When I first started using the IB criteria, I would read my students’ work and then use the IB rubric to assign the appropriate grade. But I realized that if I were going to give a true measure of the student work I was assessing, I would be giving scores much lower than an 8 or a 9.

As you can see from the scale above, it would be very common to give a student a score of 5 in the IB Program, since a 5 means the student demonstrates a “sufficient understanding of the text and topic.” If we convert that to a percentage, that is a 50%. But if you give that kind of score in America, you are basically telling the student that they have failed!

This took me some getting used to my first semester teaching in this program. I remember the first piece of writing I graded, I assigned really high scores (all 7’s and up) because I just didn’t feel right about giving students what seemed to me like a failing grade.

I have since realized that my discomfort with giving low scores comes from my experience growing up in an academic system that gives out A’s for making effort, B’s as just satisfactory, and C’s to make a statement about a student’s poor performance. D’s and F’s basically mean the student didn’t turn anything in and/or they just never came to class. Do teachers in America ever give a D based on actual performance?

I think teachers feel a lot of pressure from parents and from administration to give A’s and B’s. The universities are clearly aware that this is going on. But why do we want to keep a system like this? It makes these letter grades basically meaningless and gives a student very little information about their performance. It sends the message that effort is most important, not the actual work they do.

Grade inflation is one of the many things that is wrong with the way schools assess students in the US. I have a whole list of other things that I think could be improved, but I’ll save that for another post.

I’d be curious to know if you, reader, have had a similar experience. Is grade inflation a serious problem in the US?