Scaling grades sets dangerous precedent

People seem to be moving on from what was probably the most media coverage grade 11 math has ever received anywhere ever, but can we pause for a moment and consider the (absolutely ludicrous) outcome of all this?

For those that haven’t been following the story, parents began raising concerns in early January about their children’s (mostly failing) high school math grades. Though the teachers’ union normally does not comment on personnel matters, NWTU President Grant Osborne defended the teacher in question, saying that if there are problems, they stem from the (recently revised) curriculum, not the individual “hard marking” teacher. Parents continued to be upset, district administrators tried to diffuse the situation, revisions to the complaints process were presented, and high school students on both sides wrote letters to the local papers.

And then report cards came out and students saw their grades suddenly and inexplicably jump five to 15 per cent.

Why? Because district administrators (though no one  is saying who) scaled their marks.

There are several ways that scaling can be done, but basically students’ grades are compared with each other and students are assigned new grades based on where they fall on a relative scale.

Though I’ll admit that the district’s decision to up students’ math marks rubs me the wrong way (I think it sends a dangerous message to students about the value of grades, and how to go about getting what you want), what I am most concerned about is the doubt it casts on teachers’ abilities to do their jobs.

According to Osborne, members of the high school’s math department weren’t consulted or asked to have any part in the scaling.

I’m not insensitive to the feelings of “demoralization” that these failing students allegedly felt. Math is a hard subject — something, like the girl who spent many nights in tears over her looming final exam, I know from personal experience.

But responding to mass failure by simply elevating marks to passing grades helps no one. It renders grades meaningless and says that teachers know neither how to teach nor evaluate their students.

Instead of fully investigating the problem, administrators have slapped a quick fix on it, potentially rewarding students their for laziness and stripping the teacher of her authority.

Osborne has called the decision to scale “new territory” for the district and says he’s worried about the precedent it has set.

I, for one, have to agree. Is indiscriminately boosting marks by entire letter grades regardless of ability or effort to about become the new norm? It’s a question I’m afraid to learn the answer to.

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Hyack honeybees educate and pollinate

Biology teacher and beekeeper Axel Krause at work in NWSS's rooftop apiary. Photo cred: NWSS environment club

New Westminster Secondary School is a hive of activity these days, and not only because students are buzzing about the hallways, gearing up for second semester.

Four years ago this month, at the urging of his students, biology teacher Axel Krause approached the school board with a plan to build an apiary on the roof of the Pearson wing.

The plan was approved, and NWSS is now home to two beehives, with another shipment of bees on its way.

“It’s a unique kind of thing to our school,” said environment club president Isabel Sadowski, 17. “Not a lot of schools have beehives.”

The bees are part of an International Baccalaureate unit Krause teaches on social biology, and students are encouraged to get involved as beekeepers, honey collectors and candle makers through the environment club.

The club sells the handmade candles and pots of ‘Hyack honey’ at parent nights and Christmas fairs as a fundraiser.

“A hard part of being part of environment club is that sometimes your actions don’t really produce a lot,” said Sadowski. “You can raise awareness, you can change your own habits, but it’s hard to see the effect that you’re having. With the beehives, you can actually see the work you’ve been doing is creating something.”

But for Krause and Sadowski, bees are so much more important than the substances they produce.

“Every third mouthful of food you eat has had a bee involved,” said Krause, explaining that even dairy cows depend on bees to pollinate the alfalfa they eat. “It’s amazing how much food we eat that’s pollinated by bees. And the bees are dying.”

This month in California, one million beehives will arrive from all over the United States to pollinate over 700,000 acres of almonds. In the summer, many of those bees will be shipped to the Fraser Valley to pollinate blueberry crops, then to Alberta for canola.

Krause believes this practice may be a factor in Colony Collapse Disorder – the sudden loss of entire hives of bees that has plagued beekeepers since it was first documented in 2006.

“Do you like bananas?” asked Krause. “Do you want to eat bananas for two weeks straight? No. But that’s what we’re doing to our bees. We’re putting them into the almonds, and for two weeks all they get is almond pollen.”

Steady diets of a single kind of pollen, pesticides and viruses have contributed to the deaths of billions of bees in recent years, but Krause believes urban beekeeping is one solution.

Like many municipalities in the Lower Mainland, New Westminster has a pesticide bylaw that prohibits the use of toxic chemicals in gardens. Bees therefore have a much cleaner, more diverse area to pollinate.

“People get our honey and they say, ‘the honey is just so good, what’s in it?’ and I say, ‘I don’t know, whatever the people around the school have in their gardens,” said Krause. “This is garden variety honey.”

Since the beehives arrived in 2008, several other teachers at the school have taken up beekeeping in their own backyards. With Krause set to retire in June, Sadowski (who is graduating this year) said she hopes one of them will take command of the rooftop apiary.

“It really is Mr. Krause’s project. He makes the honey, prepares the wax for the candles, so I just hope that the beehives still continue … It will be upsetting if it doesn’t continue in the way that it has in the past.”

But given the strong interest and support of the community, Sadowski said the beehives will likely be there long after she and Krause are gone.

“We have such a big school, it’s nice that we have some kind of project that is a little more unique and really beneficial.”