A For Effort, Not Achievement

, Malcolm A. Kline, Leave a comment

When the president of Benedict College (BC) decided to base most of the grades of the school’s freshmen on effort rather than test scores, research in papers and grammar, school officials say he was making official a policy widely in place in Academia.

“You know and I know that this has always happened,” Dr. Michael Boatwright of BC told me. “When we went to school, we got part of our grade from class participation, part of it from attendance and part of it from homework.”

I pointed out to Dr. Boatwright that the majority of our grades still came from tests and papers. Under BC’s new system, 60 % of freshmen grades will be based on whether first-year students show up in class and do their homework and 40 % on actual marks: For sophomores the acceptable ratio is 50-50.

“I have been to schools where tests aren’t even part of the grade,” Dr. Boatwright said. Dr. Boatwright serves as BC’s Director of Assessment and Research.

The President of BC, David Swinton, calls the college’s new program Success Equals Effort (SEE). When I asked Dr. Boatwright whether other schools have adopted SEE, he said, “I assume that most schools have it.”

A historically black college or university, BC is located in Columbia, South Carolina. Dr. Boatwright, who earned his bachelors degree from BC, completed post-doctorial courses in Measurement and Statistics at the University of Iowa. When I asked Dr. Boatwright how the school would measure effort, he said, “That’s up to the individual faculty.”

Two faculty members who defied the policy and graded their students the old- fashioned way were fired by President Swinton for not getting with the program. Dr. Swinton has worked as an economist for both the Urban League and the Urban Institute.

Dr. William Gunn, who has taught at BC for 40 years, said publicly, “If I had to make a judgment, about 80 % of the faculty really just hate the idea.” Dr. Gunn chairs the Health, Physical Education and Recreation Department at BC.

Neither of the two faculty casualties of SEE—Drs. Milwood Motley and Larry Williams—had tenure, making their stand a particularly brave one. “I don’t think that tenure would have mattered,” Dr. Motley told me. “Even though we were the only two who were fired, I would say that the vast majority of professors there hate it.”

Though untenured, Dr. Motley has been published in the Journal of Clinical Microbiology and other scientific journals. Dr. Motley, who previously worked at the Morehouse School of Medicine in Atlanta, Georgia, served as chair of his department at BC for three years.

“I quit as chair because I needed to get back into the lab,” Dr. Motley said. “You need to be involved in your field, either in the lab or writing articles in journals.”

When asked by the press whom SEE is designed to benefit, Dr. Swinton said, “It would be a student who just never developed the work ethic and study habits and routines that’s required to be successful in college.” We have tried, thus far without success, to find out from school spokesmen why such students are pursuing higher education to begin with.

Dr. Motley sees the SEE program setting a dangerous precedent. “This policy is extending social passing for another two years,” Dr. Motley says, referring to a widespread trend in post-secondary education.

“Too many school systems have social passing,” Dr. Motley notes. “Too many times we are passing students without rudimentary skills.”

Many of the courses taken by college freshmen and sophomores are foundational ones, Dr. Motley points out. If they do not master the basics of the fields they are studying then, Dr. Motley notes, they will be lost later on.

As it happens, the Educational Trust found that 63% of the students at four-year colleges complete their degrees. If colleges and universites adopt the SEE program officially, that proportion may go down even further.