Even Gifted Students Need to Make the Grade

By Jay Mathews
Thursday, May 1, 2008

A ll responses today deal with the column "Do Grades or Standardized Test Scores Make the Student?" that appeared April 10 in the Extras.

Dear Extra Credit:

Regarding the column about a high-scoring student marked down for not doing all his assignments, good teachers inspire -- instilling in each student a thirst for knowledge that seeks more than facts and their regurgitation. Teachers ultimately strive to develop critical thinking skills that permit each of us to challenge assumptions, question beliefs and test the facts upon which they are based.

While I abhor busywork, there is a time and a place for students to demonstrate a mastery of certain bodies of knowledge -- the facts. This dominates the grading and evaluation in the early years of education, and the balance shifts as students mature and embrace individual lines of inquiry.

Your article raises the central challenge of that shifting balance, particularly aggravated in group environments (classrooms), where keeping everyone at the same pace and evaluated under the same set of requirements and grading metrics is the norm. It is far more difficult to develop individual education plans for every pupil, but that is what is needed.

Then there is the issue of managing fairness and everyone's perception of fairness when students are off "doing their own things." Still, even one talented (or less talented, but for different reasons) student who receives a lot of zeros for the work not accomplished -- or even late -- troubles me.

Yes, stick-to-itiveness and perseverance are important. Ideally a teacher should be able to persuade the "gifted and talented ones" why the "useless drudgeries" need to be completed, if only from the pure mathematical logic of averaging grades from multiple assignments. However, the practical reality is that such logic is rarely compelling, to the sixth- or ninth-grader or to me.

I believe it is incumbent upon teachers to challenge their students and to build learning environments that encourage and reward those whose interests we spark. As much as good teachers, we also need administrators who recognize this and systems that are structured to reward multiple paths and evaluation measurements in their grading systems.

Teachers (and school systems) have central roles in shaping the next generation's minds. It is a sad day every time we undermine and perhaps destroy those critical relationships through excessive reliance on the routine and mundane. Saddest of all is that good teachers know when they connect with a student, and when they are not connecting. Let's allow them to excite and inspire and not feel straitjacketed by rigid evaluation and grading systems.

James M. Keagle

Professor and former provost

National Defense University

Dear Extra Credit:

In the April 10 column, you solicited responses from readers about the management of gifted students who are attending public schools. After raising two GT students and spending 34 years teaching public high school and 22 years teaching college undergrads, I learned that it is essential for parents to become informed, directed educational planners for their talented children, not just K-12, but in college choices, too. After all, gifted students are a special-needs population in their own way. The student's mother, Nancy Klimavicz, recognized this when she articulated learning goals for her son that acknowledge the not uncommon GT tendency to perform poorly or not at all on schoolwork that the child finds too easy, while responding enthusiastically to very challenging assignments.

The missing piece, however, is that colleges, too, have their learning styles and individual priorities. Virginia Tech, the school she cited, has to my certain knowledge had the same philosophy for more than 20 years -- since before her son was born. The admissions materials are very clear that Tech prioritizes difficulty of course work, then grades, with test scores coming in third. It is not realistic to expect that any university will change long-established policies to accommodate one family.

The parents' role, then, is to investigate and pursue colleges whose approach is more congruent with theirs. Just as Ms. Klimavicz tried to ensure the best placements for her son in his K-12 education, so she should join with him to be an equally sophisticated investigator of higher education.

Joyce P. Johnston

George Mason University


Dear Extra Credit:

As a parent of a son in his third year at the University of Virginia and a son who was just accepted into the University of Virginia and William and Mary, I read with great interest the column regarding grades and standardized tests.

The only people Ms. Klimavicz can blame for her son not being accepted into a "top" Virginia college are herself and her son. Her son is to blame for not completing the course requirements. Ms. Klimavicz is to blame for not teaching her son that we can't always pick and choose to do what we feel is interesting and worthwhile. This holds true in all levels of education and in any "real world" job as well.

As a parent of three "gifted" children who have been a part of the public school system in Fairfax for 13 years, I've come to realize they are three of many gifted students in this part of Virginia. This is especially pointed out when it comes to applying for select colleges. At that time, each gifted student is one in twenty thousand!

Karen Richmond


These are excellent responses, which leave me wondering if there is a solution. Look for many more letters on this topic in my April 28 online column: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/linkset/2005/03/24/LI2005032400611.html.

Please send your questions, along with your name, e-mail or postal address and telephone number, to Extra Credit, The Washington Post, 526 King St., Suite 515, Alexandria, Va. 22314. Or e-mailextracredit@washpost.com.

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