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WV: where all kids really are above average

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David C. Allen David C. Allen
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David C. Allen is a columnist for The State Journal. He lives in Clarksburg.

Over the years, I have read the semi-annual postings of high school honor rolls with interest. Like you, perhaps, I look to see if anyone I know has made the grade. Occasionally, I notice clips about a local student making his or her college dean's list. It's nice to see youngsters doing so well.

But over the years, I have also noticed that the number of students making the honor roll or dean's list has increased far beyond a reasonable level. I define "reasonable" as being between one-in-eight (12.5 percent) and one-in-six (16.7 percent).

Before you criticize my stringency, consider that the education process is a game of skill. There is competition among students as well as competition against the machine — the memorization of empirical knowledge. The element of inter-student competition is critical to the learning process.

To determine a grade, we test the student. It's just like the game show Jeopardy — competition against the encyclopedia as well as between contestants.

As education is a game of skill, you have to look at the grading criteria with an oddsmaker's eye. What are the odds of a student making one A per semester? Then, what are the odds of a student making As in five disparate courses in one semester? The rules apply to Bs, Cs, and so on.

I have reviewed several high school honor roll lists and found that 45 percent to 50 percent of the students are making a 3.0 GPA or better. What are the odds that half the students in a given high school will make a 3.0 GPA?

This is easy to answer. Impossible. Unless you live in a fantasy world.

Years ago, I read about a West Virginia high school that had a dilemma. The school couldn't decide who to make class valedictorian because about a dozen graduating seniors had a perfect 4.0 GPA. I laughed, and I laughed. The school had a dilemma all right — a bunch of teachers and administrators who didn't realize the folly of their handing out easy As.

West Virginia students score poorly when compared to other American students in national tests. United States students are middle-of-the-pack average when compared to international students. Thus, we can imply that an honor roll student in West Virginia would most likely be an average student in Finland or one of the other five top-scoring nations.

Based on statistical analysis, the fact that half the student body makes the honor roll indicates that the curricula have been watered down. Based on anecdotal evidence, we have the examples of foreign exchange students who come here and find that they took all the advanced math and science courses that we offer to juniors and seniors by their sophomore years overseas.

I happen to believe that American kids are as smart as any kids on the planet. The fact that they have lousy test scores is the fault of the grown-ups. From top to bottom in the education hierarchy to home life and parenting, there is plenty of blame to go around. Unfortunately, the kids pay the price.

If you believe what you read in the newspapers, there is a movement afoot in West Virginia to reform the education system. Translation: The landscape will stay the same; turf battles will redistribute the goodies; our Hansels and Gretels will remain lost, just in a different part of the forest.

Before the powers that be reform the system, I would urge that they maintain the status quo. I look at the situation this way: In twenty more years, it is virtually guaranteed that nearly all of our public school teachers will be former high school honor roll graduates.

We're bound to have better schools if we stay the course. Why, I wouldn't be surprised if 80 percent of the student body in 2033 makes the honor roll.