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Schools should have a pass/fail grading system on core subjects

Schools spend too much energy distinguishing between scores like 85% and 95% under the false pretense that the difference is meaningful. Perhaps high school (and lower) educations should be about meeting minimum standards for fluency in a subject. I suggest using today's C+/B- as the bar.

Our schools try to create subject matter experts in subjects which matter little to success in life. We can, of course, offer any number of rigorous, grade-based courses for those interested.

However, the objective should be to impart the knowledge needed to be productive and informed participants of our communities.

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    May 11 2013: Hi Ash,

    I teach at the 2-year college level, and so I can't comment with any expertise on primary and secondary-school education, but I do encounter many students recently graduated from high school who are woefully unprepared in basic areas such as mathematics and reading comprehension.

    One strategy I've found extremely helpful, especially for these students, is to divide the concepts taught in each of my courses into two categories: "have to know" and "good to know". The "good to know" concepts get tested on a percentage scale, with a certain minimum score for passing. Those concepts which are "have to know" (i.e. critically important) get tested at a mastery level -- students cannot pass the course unless and until they demonstrate mastery (100% competence) of those concepts on both written tests and performance evaluations. At first this might seem unnecessarily strict and/or disheartening to students who fail to demonstrate mastery. The key to its success is that students are given multiple opportunities to demonstrate mastery, with each re-try triggering a one-on-one conference with me to identify where they're experiencing trouble and what to do to prepare for their next try. This process focuses both student and instructor attention directly on what they need the most. In fact, mastery assessment has proven most beneficial to those students who arrive most unprepared from high school.

    One huge problem I see with the structure of most courses is that it's based on a percentage scale, allowing a fairly large amount of concent to go unlearned. If a student knows that their grade is based on a 500-point scale, and all they need is 370 points to pass, the course is likely to be treated by the student as a kind of game: a cynical act of collecting points to win. With mastery-based assessment, however, it's no longer a game one can cut corners on.
    • May 13 2013: I like this approach, like it very much, this "have to know" piece. This would take some serious re-jiggering of education, but might just be the way forward.

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