As a dean at a rural community college in Illinois, I
recently served as a judge for a history fair for seventh and eighth graders at
a local school–an assignment that involved a real surprise. When the Social
Studies teacher gave me the grading rubric, I saw only three categories: Superior,
Excellent, and Good.
I asked the teacher what I was supposed to do if a
presentation was bad or poor. She looked at me and said, with a straight face,
“Good means poor.” “How so?” I asked. “What kind of semantic gymnastics is
that? Does that mean that superior is above average, and excellent is average?”
She didn’t answer the question, but said that the students worked really hard
on their projects and the school didn’t want any of them to feel discouraged.
If they scored in the 70s, then their presentation was considered bad. “But
you’re telling them that it is good,” I said.
She wryly smiled at me and then changed the subject by
telling me that I should write comments because that is the only feedback
students will get on their projects. She handed me the guidelines, which said:
“It is critical that your interactions with the students be fair, helpful, and positive. Your spoken
and written comments are fundamental to making the History Day contest an
enjoyable learning process.” And a little later in boldface: “Judges must write positive and
constructive comments.” (You can read them here
for yourself). That put me in a quandary. If I told a student that his
presentation was very good–sounds positive, right?–I’d actually be telling him
that it was very bad, according to the teacher’s linguistic somersaults. I
decided to write in my comments on most of the presentations that they were
Of the ten presentations I evaluated, only two were sufficiently
historical in nature, and only one relied almost exclusively on primary
sources. Others were on subjects that were hardly relevant to the history of Illinois
(the assignment), such as the Chicago Fire (not the Great Fire of 1871, but the
soccer team), the University of Illinois basketball team, and Brian Urlacher
and Walter Payton of the Chicago Bears.
Then it hit me. This is why so many of our students come to
us unprepared. They go through grade school and high school and are told that
they are doing a superior, excellent, or very good job when in reality their
academic performance is average, bad, or very bad indeed. Of course I can’t
blame the students. I blame the system that perpetuates this kind of fraud and
the Social Studies teacher for not holding her students accountable for the
quality of their work. But then, her supervisor probably assures her that she
is doing a very good job.