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On belonging: inclusion and care over grades and academic excellence

November 5, 2021

This piece represents the opinion of the author.

I remember my first year, I found it strange that meritocracy was used as a criterion for students to belong at Bowdoin. Meritocracy is the basic idea that those who succeed earn their fate via merit, while those who don’t succeed earn their failure due to lack of hard work and skill. This narrative began the moment I returned from my pre-orientation trip when my class gathered at Morrell Gym to listen to the school administrators speak. One dean opened with the line, “You all belong here.” The dean continued on with something along the lines of, “you are all here because you are smart. Even if you mess up, know that we are here to support you—you have already proven your merit.”

How did they know that I belong here? The assumption was clear: your merit was quantitatively and qualitatively documented in your application, which is why you were admitted. Your GPA, test scores and extracurriculars were all extraordinary. Your interview was outstanding. You are community-oriented. You think deeply about the world around you. You are poised to take full advantage of the Offer of the College. Your admission, your sense of belonging, is contingent on your merit.

But I wonder, what happens to that community of care—that sense of belonging—when the same metrics start to point in the opposite direction?

You start to get Bs, Cs and Ds on problem sets, essays and exams. You start struggling to keep up with assignments and classwork. You start worrying about letting your parents or guardians down. You worry about whether the chance to achieve upward social mobility is slipping through your hands. Maybe I can’t be a scientist or a doctor or a writer. Maybe I don’t belong here. Do I belong anywhere? It is reasonable to expect that Bowdoin should be a rigorous place with high expectations. However, the difficulty should not have to feel existential, as it does for many students.

One stressor I constantly hear from current students is grading; from recently admitted students in admissions, it is test scores. Students need high marks not only to continue forward to whatever they see next for themselves—often the workforce or professional tracks—but also because those marks were exactly what welcomed them into this community. In fact, if you walk into the admissions office, the first sign you see is a formula for how students are evaluated in their application; on the sign is a pie chart that reads “50% grades, 50% heart.” The implication is not only that grades are important, but they are weighted equally with the entirety of who you are. Of course, test scores are also squeezed into the grades category if you choose to submit them.

After that first-year welcome speech, I set off on a roughly three-year journey to study grades and standardized testing in order to understand what made me belong at Bowdoin. This work has resulted in a governmental research role, a TEDx talk, several publications and a conference presentation. What did I learn? Let me be blunt.

1) The foundations for normalized, standardized testing are incoherent.

2) The more we account for internal test-content validity, the more blind we are to external factors wrapped up with social power structures, and vice versa.

3) Making extremely difficult tests that need to be curved to a grade distribution is counter-productive for demonstrating student knowledge.

4) A 100-year literature review found that grades are not a good feedback tool, do not internally motivate students to improve and are not an effective communicator of academic potential or achievement across institutions. In fact, the interpretation of a given grade is more associated with the ideological values of a given classroom environment for how a student should behave than it is with actual achievement.

Bowdoin should shift its approach of inclusion from a community of merit based on flawed assumptions to a community of inclusion and care. We need to stop telling students that the onus for the stressful environment is their choice. You cannot deep-breathe your way out of despair when the “structure and routine” you are asked to find solace in is, itself, poison.

Patrick Bloniasz is a member of the Class of 2022.

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2 comments:

  1. Bruce Lynskey, 1977 says:

    Bowdoin’s ‘Accelerated’ Introduction to Physics (circa mid-1970s)
    All admitted students to the course must have completed calculus courses through vector calculus. Weekly 3-4 hour lab with write-up.
    Course instructor was one of Bowdoin’s top lecturers.
    No note taking permitted during class. You needed to listen and respond to questions fired at you by the instructor.
    No quizzes or exams throughout the semester.
    Final exam was self-scheduled beginning after Thanksgiving break.
    18 problems – 45 minutes allowed per problem. Open book and open notes.
    Sign out one problem at a time – with start time recorded at the department office.
    By the end of the 11th problem, I had not yet written a single word or computation. I ended up solving (so I thought) 4 of the 18 problems presented over the 2+ week period.
    No word or understanding at the end of the semester as to what constituted a passing grade on the final exam.
    We learned upon our return following the Christmas/January break that a ‘High Honors’ (the equivalent of today’s ‘A’) was given if you were able to solve 2 of the 18 problems correctly.
    The course instructor was one the 3 best professors I had at Bowdoin.

  2. Class of 92 says:

    Another attempt to guide Bowdoin further into mediocrity. What is wrong with the idea that you earn the right to have a chance at Bowdoin, you aren’t entitled to stay and if your grades do fall materially maybe you in don’t belong at Bowdoin…unless of course we just redefine the meaning of “merit”, “test”, “fair” etc. The ” 100 year” literature review seems to only have supported your views..including grades based on “ideological values”. Seems the “review” missed math and science but then again those who want to move away from grades to “inclusion and care” probably believe science and math are not inclusive or careful enough.


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