Point junkies

Don’t let the quest for good grades interfere with a good education.

by Allison Fingerett

From my perch in the back of the lecture hall, I have my choice of strangersâÄô Facebook photo albums to peruse from afar. After settling on what looked like an expensive wedding, I snapped out of its hypnotic rapture when the professor announced what she called âÄúan important group activity.âÄù The girl beside me, currently conducting three instant-message conversations, turned her head with panicked, furrowed brows. âÄúIs this worth points?âÄù she asked. There is a substantial crack in the system, and it breeds a population of academic âÄúpoint junkies,âÄù students trained to value their transcripts at the expense of actual learning. Point junkies arenâÄôt just grade-grubbing overachievers or Facebook-surfing slackers. Many are students who took advantage of every free credit over 13, were out one-too-many days with the swine flu or need a certain GPA to retain their financial aid. One misstep in a class can turn you into a zombie, out for point instead of brains. My biology class has a policy for pre-lab quizzes. If you come in late and miss the quiz you can make it up later for 25 percent off. Should you miss class completely, however, you can make it up with no penalty. Said quizzes are the basis of our lab grade. So, point taken (pun intended), if IâÄôm going to be late to the 8 a.m. lab, better to take a deep breath and hit âÄúsnoozeâÄù instead. There is a logical reason for this policy, explained my TA. The quizzes are designed to measure whether you did your homework. And itâÄôs âÄúunfairâÄù to assess a studentâÄôs prep work if they were there to soak up all the answers. But here we have a classic forest vs. trees scenario. Whether I care about biology, I care more about my transcript. So pitting learning and good grades against each other is rather ridiculous. Last week, a North Carolina middle school initiated a cash-for-grades fundraiser. A $20 donation would buy your child 20 extra test points to use at their discretion. Principal Susie ShepherdâÄôs excuse for the blunder illustrates the idiocy that abounds in a tumbling economy. âÄúLast year they [sold] chocolates, and it didnâÄôt generate anything,âÄù she said. The mainstream media caught wind, and school administrators put the kibosh on the whole thing, citing an ethical oversight. Nevertheless, viewing grades as a potentially lucrative commodity is indicative of a system that assesses all students on an unwavering, homogenized basis. Simply put, something is wrong. And not just in North Carolina. I spoke to a University of Minnesota student whose passion for learning Arabic âÄî central to her career goals in the Middle East âÄî must be put on hold until after graduation. âÄúItâÄôs a difficult language,âÄù she said, âÄúand I canâÄôt risk my GPA.âÄù I understand the need for competition in an academic institution, but what about the purpose of education? If we canâÄôt learn whatâÄôs personally meaningful, either because non-major requirements push our passions to the side or because an emphasis on massive course loads doesnâÄôt allow for the time necessary to internalize individual concepts, why should we give the University our money? This same student shrugged her shoulders and made the âÄúitâÄôs college, what do you expect?âÄù argument. She gave the example of law schools trying to break spirits, weeding out those whose dreams may be the product of idealism. ThatâÄôs valid in that specific situation, but it shouldnâÄôt extend to undergraduates in the College of Liberal Arts. WeâÄôre not there to be broken; weâÄôre there to enrich our souls. Right? OK, to enrich our souls and stay afloat in the miserable job market. But letâÄôs not lose sight of the former. This summer I was denied an entry-level position at a coffee shop. The manager expressed his apologies: âÄúYou were up against college graduates,âÄù he said. While I plan on an eventual doctorate, my current dreams are modest and involve aprons. But when I lose points on trick questions in general courses, my life becomes a tireless uphill battle for decent grades. I have âÄújoyâÄù penciled in for winter break, as well as a list of subjects IâÄôd love to explore further but havenâÄôt the time while enrolled as a student. I donâÄôt believe the widespread points system needs to be abolished altogether, but we are paying exorbitant amounts of money to better our lives. And sometimes one has to fight for oneâÄôs right to get what they pay for. Each professor has their own autonomous grading strategy. Some are plenty fair and understand that a wealth of points is no indication of a connection with the material. Others are doing their best to accommodate hundreds of students by quantifying performance to a fault. Either way, donâÄôt hesitate to communicate with the people responsible for the fate of your transcript. ItâÄôs insulting to beg for grade-saving points, but you have only respect to gain from testifying your unique investment in their curriculum. Some schools have abandoned traditional grading systems and relied instead on comprehensive written evaluations between students and teachers. Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash., is one such progressive institution. Graduates of Evergreen tend to enjoy their time there, but some feel thrown to the wolves when applying to graduate school with a transcript of verbose assessments no one has time to read. The answer to âÄúwhat works?âÄù lies somewhere between single letters that say little and flowery prose that says too much. Education is too important to sacrifice quality for quantification. Just because we attend a giant state school does not make it acceptable to disappear in a sea of numbers. Allison Fingerett welcomes comments at [email protected].