I was honored -- albeit surprised -- to be invited to publish an op-ed in a special New York Times Opinion package, “What is School For?”, publi...
Since June 2020, we have seen a war on merit, as part of a campaign that unfortunately seeks to dumb down America’s children. How did it begin? Where is it playing out? We’ve compiled a timeline that gives you a peek into the long war on merit and the new battlefront, starting in June 2020 when “educational equity” became an excuse to dumb down education. Parent advocates everywhere should recognize that only children suffer when we eliminate advanced education and merit. We will keep posting examples, so send them our way if the war on merit comes to your neighborhood.
Asra Q. Nomani is a former Wall Street Journal reporter and a senior fellow at Independent Women’s Network. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE LONG WAR ON MERIT
Beyond Grades (JSTOR, Irvin Peckham, Fall 1993)
California to Rid AP Course Extra Credit (ABC News, 2002)
Many elementary schools abandon letter grades (Washington Post, Sept. 21, 2011).
The Case Against Grades (JSTOR, Alfie Kohn, 2013)
Rethinking Honor Roll, De-emphasizing Academic Competition (Education Week, May 21, 2015)
Parents push back against school report cards with no letter grades (Chicago Tribune, June 1, 2016)
Attack on AP by 8 D.C.-area private schools flunks the smell test (Washington Post, 2018)
Our schools will get rid of AP courses. Here’s why. (Washington Post, 2018)
Removing gifted programs
AP Tests Are Still a Great American Equalize (WSJ, 2019)
Desegregation Plan: Eliminate All Gifted Programs in New York (NY Times, 2019)
- The highly selective program has long been criticized for feeding racial segregation in the nation’s largest school system.
No more A’s and F’s? Teachers experiment with ‘standards based’ grading (Palo Alto Weekly, Jan. 31, 2020)
- “In Laurie Pennington’s science classes at Gunn High School, standards-based grading has tested students’ and parents’ firm attachment to traditional grades,” Palo Alto Online reported about one teacher’s effort. “This is the fourth year she’s used the form of grading that emphasizes students’ mastery of prescribed standards over rote learning. The practice is growing in popularity in schools across the country. Pennington believes it’s a more equitable, accurate and progressive way of evaluating students who learn in vastly different ways.”
Parents pushing back
Keep Letter Grades For Ohio Schools (The Intelligencer, Feb. 4, 2020)
- “Parents in Ohio work to stop school districts there from moving away from a traditional grading system.”
Public Schools Try Ditching A-to-F Letter Grades (NPR, Feb. 28, 2020)
- “”The focus is more on learning for learning’s sake because you want to learn the material and you’re actually interested in it,” said 17-year-old Taylor Daniels, who grew up going to Winnetka Public Schools District 36, which doesn’t give letter grades until mid-year 7th grade. “Teachers are able to teach more to engage the student than teaching to a test.””
- “Out in west suburban Elmwood Park, schools are preparing to do away with letter grades. The district is doing a pilot in some classrooms this year, and plans to do a full rollout for kindergarten to 5th grade next year.”
Madison school district tries new grading scale to prevent students from failing (NBC15 News Madison, March 2, 2020)
- “Madison Metropolitan School District is trying out a new strategy to keep teens from failing out of school, and it starts with the grading scale.”
- “The district said the current scale is out-of-date. School officials said MMSD’s 100-point grading scale has been the same since the industrial revolution and it’s time for a change.”
- “Some freshman teachers are trying a 10-point grading scale where each student has ten possible points to get an A through F. The lowest grade a student could receive is a forty or fifty percent instead of a zero.”
THE NEW WAR ON MERIT
- To school’s mostly Asian, mostly immigrant parents: “Please think of privileges you hold that others may not.”
- “During this reflection period, I would like to simultaneously call the TJ community to action in three areas.”
- “First, our school is a rich tapestry of heritages; however, we do not reflect the racial composition in FCPS. Our 32 black students and 47 Hispanic students fill three classrooms. If our demographics actually represented FCPS, we would enroll 180 black and 460 Hispanic students, filling nearly 22 classrooms. The most recent TJ admissions trend, unfortunately, does not close the equity gap. Do all FCPS children who have high interest and aptitude for STEM enjoy the same privileges that put them on a path to TJ? Do the TJ admissions outcomes affirm that we believe TJ is accessible to all talented STEM-focused students regardless of race or personal circumstance?”
“Elite public schools in Virginia, elsewhere seek diversity.” (AP, Aug. 11, 2020)
- “Officials in several states are considering major changes to the way the nation’s top-rated public high schools admit students.”
- “Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology regularly finds itself at the very top of national rankings, an elite public school in the suburbs of the nation’s capital for which families start preparing their children as early as kindergarten. For decades, though, Black and Hispanic students have made up just a tiny fraction of the school’s student body. That may be changing soon, as Virginia officials prepare plans to dramatically alter the admissions policy at TJ and 18 other gifted high schools across the state.”
Official Coalition For TJ (Aug. 11, 2020)
- Parents in Northern Virginia organize against the removal of merit-based admissions to Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology.
Is It Time to Reexamine Grading? (JSTOR, Sept. 2, 2020)
The Future of College Admissions Is Test Blind. (Sept. 14, 2020)
- “A landmark California lawsuit prohibiting the nine-campus University of California system (Berkeley, UCLA, etc.) from using the SAT or ACT next year has changed the discussion of equity in admissions, introducing the phrase “test blind” (refusing to consider test scores) into the national conversation.”
OPINION: We Must Address the Academic Segregation That Persists Across South Orange-Maplewood. (The Village Green, Oct. 5, 2020)
- By Isaac Lozano (now at Stanford University).
ACT and SAT scores no longer required for admissions at some colleges. (CBS News, Oct. 7, 2020)
- “A growing number of U.S. colleges and universities are abandoning ACT and SAT scores as part of their admissions process. The so-called test-blind movement has gathered steam this year amid widespread cancellations of the standardized tests because of COVID-19.”
Gifted programs worsen inequality. Here’s what happens when schools try to get rid of them. (NBC news, Oct. 14, 2020)
- “Districts are eliminating gifted classes and instead trying to teach all students together. In some places, it’s working — but schools also face challenges.”
- “Around the country, gifted and talented programs have come under fire for exacerbating school systems’ already stark racial and economic segregation. In 2019 in New York City, a group commissioned by Mayor Bill de Blasio, The School Diversity Advisory Group, recommended doing away with all gifted and talented programs, while that same year Seattle attempted unsuccessfully to eliminate its programs as a way to alleviate school segregation.”
San Diego Unified changes grading practices to be equitable, less punitive. (San Diego Union-Tribune, Oct. 15, 2020)
- “Starting this school year San Diego Unified [School District] will eliminate non-academic factors, such as student behavior, from academic grades, following a unanimous vote by the school board Tuesday [Oct. 13, 2020] to overhaul the district’s grading practices.”
- “The changes are partly to address racial and other disparities in current grading practices, officials said.”
- “District data have shown that Black, Hispanic, Native American and Pacific Islander high school students are significantly more likely to be given D and F grades.”
Removing merit-based admissions
Montgomery County: The Racial-Justice War On Merit-Based Schools: It’s an Injustice Against Excellence, Critics Say (Real Clear Investigations, Nov. 2, 2020)
- “The Montgomery County school system in Maryland touts its “equity journey” on its website. New York City could follow its lead in widening its outreach for low-income “gifted and talented” students.”
Mayor Shifts Admission Screens in Effort to Address Segregation in NYC Schools (NBC New York, Dec. 18, 2020)
California Tries to Close the Gap in Math, but Sets Off a Backlash (NY Times, Nov. 4, 2021)
Faced with soaring Ds and Fs, schools are ditching the old way of grading (Los Angeles Times, Nov. 8, 2021)
- “These days, the Alhambra High School English teacher has done away with points entirely. He no longer gives students homework and gives them multiple opportunities to improve essays and classwork. The goal is to base grades on what students are learning, and remove behavior, deadlines and how much work they do from the equation.”
- “It was literally inequitable,” he said.
- “Los Angeles and San Diego Unified — the state’s two largest school districts, with some 660,000 students combined — have recently directed teachers to base academic grades on whether students have learned what was expected of them during a course — and not penalize them for behavior, work habits and missed deadlines. The policies encourage teachers to give students opportunities to revise essays or retake tests to show that they have met learning goals, rather than enforcing hard deadlines.”
California schools accused of ‘coddling’ students after eliminating ‘D’ and ‘F’ grades. (The National Desk, Dec. 14, 2021)
- School districts in Los Angeles, Sacramento, San Diego, and Oakland, among others, are reportedly ending the practice of giving out grades below ‘C’ for high schoolers. According to EdSource, students will be given more time to complete assignments if they aren’t turned in on time and the ability to retake failed tests.
Conservatives Open New Front in Elite School Admission Wars (NY Times, Feb. 16, 2022)
Teachers second-guess letter grades as they search for a fairer way (Washington Post, Feb. 28, 2022)T
- “What he and other educators are doing is part of a revolution in grading, one that started years before the coronavirus pandemic in some school districts but that has taken on new urgency as educators around the country think twice about assigning those judgmental letters A-F to students whose schooling has been disrupted for two years.”
- “A federal judge ruled Friday that a Virginia school system illegally discriminated against Asian Americans when it overhauled the admissions policies at an elite public school.”
Asian-Americans Fight Back Against School Discrimination (WSJ, March 1, 2022)
In ‘social-emotional learning,’ right sees more critical race theory (Washington Post, March 28, 2022)
- So, this past fall, the district implemented a social-emotional learning (SEL) program — a curriculum geared at helping students manage emotions, develop positive relationships and make good decisions. Schools have worked to develop these skills for decades, and in recent years, formal programming has proliferated coast to coast. In Anoka-Hennepin, elementary schools focused on themes such as respect, empathy, gratitude, kindness, honesty, courage, cooperation, perseverance and responsibility each month. Students learned how to ask for help and spot someone having a bad day.
- Conservative activists who have battled schools across the country over issues of race and gender have a new target: SEL programs that until recently were noncontroversial. The pushback is not yet as widespread as protests around critical race theory, the teaching of history and efforts to ban books. But it is being driven by similar forces and is spreading in familiar ways.
Spending time on social and emotional learning and activism instead of academics
Colorado’s largest school district to implement 20-min social, emotional learning at all schools (The Denver Channel, May 26, 2022)
Lowell High School to Reinstate Merit-Based Enrollment. (California Globe, June 23, 2022)
- “A return to excellence triumphs over mediocrity. With the sting of a February recall election that saw three of its members bounced from its ranks fresh in their memories, the San Francisco Unified District Board of Education has voted to drop a 2-year-old lottery system to gain entrance into the elite Lowell School. By a slim 4-3 vote, the school will return to a merit-based applications process that uses grades, tests, and essays as criteria for acceptance. The system will go into place for the Freshman class entering in the Fall of 2023.”
Teachers forced to do even more under policies opposed to bad grades (Washington Post, July 24, 2022)
- “The district has told teachers that they may give a zero for an assignment that is not done if they can document their efforts to contact the parent about the problem. Otherwise teachers have to follow the district’s rule — part of a nationwide grading reform — that even a totally missed assignment can be scored no lower than 50 percent.”
- ““If I have 140 students, and 20 of them do not complete an assignment (a realistic number for many teachers), then I have to email those 20 parents about that assignment,” he said. “If I don’t hear back, I have to email them again. I have to document this effort and then, only then, can I assign a zero.””
- “There are also changes in how to weight grades. Before, if a student got a C one marking period and a B the next, the grade for the semester would be a B because the student was showing progress. If the student got a B the first marking period and a C the next, the final semester grade would be a C. Under the new policy, if a student gets a B in either marking period the final grade is a B.”
Removing academic expectations
Is Homework Necessary for Student Success? (NY Times, Aug. 6, 2022)
- “Finland proves that you don’t need homework for education success.”
How Below Grade-Level Work is Holding Students Back in Literacy (The New Teacher Project, Aug. 15, 2022)
- “Students are spending even more time on below grade-level work than they were before the pandemic,” the report said. “Students on the ReadWorks platform spent about a third of their time engaging with below grade-level texts and question sets. In fact, they received 5 percentage points more below grade-level content” than before the 2021-2022 school year.
- “Students in schools serving more historically marginalized communities — particularly students experiencing poverty — were assigned the most below grade-level work. Students in schools serving the most students in poverty spent about 65% more time on below grade-level texts and question sets than their peers in the most affluent schools,” the report said.