“I Don’t Want to Ruin My GPA”

Last week we found out via EdSector’s Chad Aldeman that the SAT/ACT are useless. The GPA, he says, as he clings to the coattails of the new book Crossing the Finish Line, is the best predictor of “college success.”

I pointed out in that writeup that “college success” being defined as “obtaining a degree” is problematic, as measuring whether someone has managed to leap over an abysmally-low bar doesn’t tell us much. But it’s the best we can do, said Aldeman:

“Matthew, you’re right that we can’t measure “college success” much better than “obtaining a degree.” That’s unfortunate, but you have to remember that almost all previous studies have defined “success” as “first-year college grades” or “one-year retention rate.” Surely you’d agree that success is closer to graduation than it is to those interim measures.”

Yes, it’s closer. And a foot is nearer to being a mile than an inch is, but they’re both awfully far.

I’m pleased that Aldeman has admitted that he and Education Sector can’t conceive of success in education as being more than showing up and paying the bill for 4 years. It certainly saves some of us a lot of work. But he’s wrong about what’s unfortunate. The unfortunate part is the inability to look at history – that longitudinal study of people, which includes their education and its purpose – and see in its richness something of more value than a degree.

I had the temerity to challenge Aldeman’s claim that GPA mattered all that much as an indicator of academic talent. I find that GPA is often a measure of one’s ability to function within a higher ed system as weak as a public high school from which they came – not what they know.

Aldeman spins the criticism because the truth is too damning:

“By mocking perseverance–which I tend to think is a pretty important trait for just about everything in life–you’re also shifting the discussion away from college admissions policies to college quality in general.”

Perseverance isn’t to be mocked – and an honest reading of my comment to Aldeman can’t suggest otherwise. But we should recognize what perseverance shows and what it doesn’t.

For example, one’s ability to persevere, and a GPA that reflects it, doesn’t necessarily show us that one can do basic algebra. 90% CUNY students dropped the ball on a recent measure of skills:

“During their first math class at one of CUNY’s four-year colleges, 90% of 200 students tested couldn’t solve a simple algebra problem, the report by the CUNY Council of Math Chairs found. Only a third could convert a fraction into a decimal.”

John Jay College sophomore Ahmed Elshafaie, 19, who graduated from Long Island City High School, said he avoids math classes.

“I don’t want to ruin my GPA,” he said. “High school standards were really low.”

What can the quantitative section of the SAT tell us? That a student can convert a fraction to a decimal, for one, and that they’ve got a handle on basic algebra.

What does a GPA and high school diploma hide? That for 13 years, Ahmed got shorted on math instruction. That as a 19 year old college freshman, Ahmed can’t do the most basic 9th grade math, which is not only at the heart of every academic discipline utilizing any numbers, but is also required to understand compound interest on his credit card bill. That Ahmed’s professors will be burdened by getting his skills up to speed at the expense of teaching him a class’s main content.

… and that he’s shut out of studying any math in college because he was never prepared for it.

Ahmed sounds like a decent kid – he’s more honest about his academic preparation, and the prospects it affords, than the folks at EdSector. I’m sure he’ll persevere, too, and earn a degree from CUNY. He just won’t be able to convert a fraction to a decimal, despite his likely 3.0 high school GPA matching up with his obtaining a degree.

7 Responses to ““I Don’t Want to Ruin My GPA””

  1. That’s pretty interesting. I haven’t thought of it in the way you describe….”GPA is often a measure of one’s ability to function within a higher ed system as weak as a public high school from which they came – not what they know.”

    But I disagree with your analogy that getting year 1 college data is an inch and college completion is a foot….and something else is a mile.

    I don’t think college completion is an abysmally low bar….

  2. Mark Barnes says:

    Very interesting post, Matthew. Looking at things from my world, junior high school, it’s difficult for me to put a premium on GPA.

    I’d really like it if my seventh graders would just remember to bring their books to class and stop interrupting me, when I’m telling them how important it is to raise their grades.

    Good to be back on your blog, after a lengthy hiatus to create online courses for teachers. I’ll certainly be a regular for your intelligent commentary.

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  4. Michele says:

    It’s interesting that you use mathematics as a prime example of GPA not reflecting actual knowledge. As someone who has tutored both high school and college math students, I am continually amazed at the students who have absolutely no math skills other than what they can get their calculator to do.

    One senior in high school and I were working on an Algebra II problem. We were all the way through to x = 125 + 25. I slid his calculator out of reach and asked him for the answer. He became frightened at losing his calculator and looked ready to have a panic attack. He could not do the math on his own!

    When I spoke to his teacher, she told me that he was a great A/B student. But, when I asked her if I had put two quarters and a dollar bill on the table if her student would have be able to tell me how much money it amounted to, her response was “Oh, that’s not math, it’s money.”

    I suspect a big contributor to high school and college graduates who are not truly educated is more a factor of an educational system that would rather ensure graduation rates and tuition fees than actually educate students. Or in the case of my math student, his teacher was more concerned that her students learned “how to use tools” rather than how to add two numbers together.

  5. Ed Sector’s position and Alderman’s responses to your questions really aren’t surprising. Tough, objective standards (like the SAT) run counter to Higher Education’s constant mantra of “everyone must attend college.”

  6. Stephanie Fortson says:

    Very interesting post. I was just wondering if you think that the Common Core Standards will help prevent this academic inconsistency with college freshmen?

  7. Although I do agree that perseverance is needed for basic success in life, I don’t think that alone can be what defines success. Students that do well in schools may do so for a number of reasons; they may be the type of learner that responds best to the typical education environment, they may be hard workers, or simply learned how to play the game. If test scores and GPAs are what we use as success markers than this is all, or most of what students will reach for. I think we are in need of a new idea of what defines success. Student centered learning based on interest can be the key to life long learners and the higher levels of intelligence we are looking for.

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