May 2010 Archives

The last couple of weeks have been rough. On 22 May 2010 I gave away my daughter, my only child, at her wedding. She then left for a week long honeymoon at Grand Isle, Louisiana. While she was there she gave me some first-hand accounts of the oil from well in the Gulf. The President visited during her stay but she did not get to see him. He stayed on the end of the island where the newer houses and the Coast Guard station are. She did wave at every helicopter and saw Katie Couric.

Today, we helped load her stuff onto a truck for her to move with her husband to their new home. It was and is a very difficult time. She has married a very nice guy who cares about her greatly but, she has been with us for 25 years and not having her around will take some adjustment. I've been told that we will make the adjustment, and intellectually I know that too, but the truth is it is very hard right now. Fortunately they will only be a few hours away so we can visit without too much trouble.

Advanced Placement Credit

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ARTICLE: "AP classes' draw extends beyond extra grade points." By Jay Mathews Washington Post, 31 May 2010.

Disclaimer reminder: This is a personal web site and the opinions expressed are mine and mine alone. The opinion in this post does not necessarily reflect the opinion of my employer.

Kristin Klopfenstein is an associate professor of economics at Texas Christian University who is currently doing some work for the Texas Schools Project. The bottom line of her work is that although she thought giving students extra credit for Advanced Placement courses would entice students to take the classes, the data show this is not the case.

As pointed out in the article, today it is fairly common for some schools to give extra credit for AP courses. Not all schools do this and not all schools that do give extra credit, give the same extra credit. A common type of extra credit is adding one point to the class grade for grades of C or better. In other words while a C in a regular course would earn 2 points, it would be given 3 points if it were AP. Similarly an A would earn 5 points instead of the typical 4. This is why some students report GPAs of 4.5 out of 4. That bothers me on principle alone and I rank right up there with athletes who "give 110%". The math just doesn't support it.

In addition to the math not supporting extra credit, the fact that there is no common way of weighting AP courses makes it even more difficult to justify the practice. Are students at a school that does not weight AP courses dumber than those at schools that do weight the grades? Are those who do not receive weighted AP grades challenged more than those who do? It is difficult to tell and so I do not support grade weighting for these and other reasons.

I took an Advanced Placement course way back when and enjoyed it immensely. I actually wanted to take two AP classes and was selected to take both chemistry and history but they both ended up being taught at the same time. I chose chemistry. I say selected because in my high school you did not simply register for an AP classes, you had to be invited to take it. My high school was a little different. First, it was back in the day when students were tracked--some were on the college prep track, others were on the vo-tech track. Most, if not all, of my teachers actually had bachelor's degrees in the area they were teaching and a master's degree in education. In other words, my chemistry teacher had a BS in chemistry, not a BS in science education.

When we were selected for an AP course we were informed that the courses would be taught at the college level and we would be expected to work at the college level. We were offered NO incentive to the classes nor were we ever promised good grades. I, like my classmates, took the AP courses because we wanted to get a head start on college and we wanted an intellectual challenge.

I think that a student who is taking an AP course should be taught at a college level, should perform at a college level, and should be evaluated at a college level. Artificially adding points to a grade does not reflect that the student is performing at the college level. In fact, I would argue, having to add points says that the course is not being evaluated at the college level.

My chemistry class was told that we would be taught at a college level and that we would be expected to perform at a college level. When we got our first nine weeks report cards we are all surprised to find that we had earned a grade of F in the class. Our teacher told us that we were being taught at a college level but that we were not performing at a college level. He also reminded us that we were hand-picked to take the course and were some of the smartest students at the school and earning an F would help us build character. We complained, we argued, but we eventually sucked it up, kicked up our performance in class a notch or five, and he made it up to us in the end. I, and I think most of my classmates, realized when we entered college that we had, in fact, not been performing at the college level.

I do understand the reasons schools give for artificially adding points to AP courses. They don't want their best and brightest to be penalized with lower grades in tougher courses. They fear it will result in lost scholarships or denied admissions. And, to be honest, it some cases that may be true. However, what is done for those who are given extra credit for AP classes? Many high schools have also changed their grading scale from a 7-point scale to a 10-point scale in order to raise GPAs for scholarship purposes. This is a cat and mouse game so colleges then modify their scholarship requirements in recognition that an A this year may not be what it was last year.

When I look at a student I look at a student. I seldom take a GPA for granted. I do look at the courses taken and make some mental adjustments (in the positive direction) for those who took AP courses, honors courses, or just chose to take a more rigorous route through high school. I know that there were other students in my high school who had better grades than I had but they had nowhere near the challenging courses I took. Looking back on it from thirty-something years out I think I, and my AP classmates, were indeed the more successful.

The study by Klopfenstein shows that weighting AP courses is not necessary. I agree and wish schools would stop the practice. Let's get back to evaluating courses as they should be evaluated. If a student earns a B in an AP course in high school then they should earn a B in the same college course. Students who take AP and honors courses should be the best students at their school, they should be capable of performing at the college level, and they should be evaluated and rewarded accordingly. Doing so would result in fewer disappointed students when they realize that in college, they are not given extra credit for the most difficult courses. The grades I earned in thermodynamics and physical chemistry carried the same amount of weight as the grades I earned in general psychology and introduction to sociology but the workload and expectations were vastly different.

In reviewing Dr. Klopfenstein's CV I note that there are several publications on this topic slated to be published this year. I will certainly be interested in looking at those publications.

The traditional Memorial Day ceremony was held in Starkville today, planned and executed by the Military Affairs Committee, which I co-chair. As has become our tradition, I was the master of ceremonies. web_IMG_0769.jpgThe day started out great with a little cloud cover but warmed up near time for the ceremony. We always worry about the heat and its effects on some the elderly who attend. The Oktibbeha County Red Cross is always present though with water for those who need it.

Our guest speaker this year was LTC Jim Sisson who is the commander of the 2nd-114th Field Artillery Mississippi National Guard unit in Starkville. Sisson.jpg
We also had brief welcome speeches from the Mayor of Starkville, Parker Wiseman, and the President of the Oktibbeha County Board of Supervisors, Marvel Howard.
Thumbnail image for Wiseman.jpg Thumbnail image for Howard.jpg

The Boy Scouts from troop 288 served as the color guard and also assisted with the laying of the traditional wreaths at the memorial in front of the courthouse.

web_IMG_0771.jpg Thumbnail image for Wreath_Laying.jpg

This year we also had a parade thanks to Ashley Cumberland, a Mississippi State University student who organized the parade as her capstone project for the Appalachian Leadership Honors Program. She did a great job and spent many hours getting it organized. It was such a success that I think we will have to do it again next year but that will mean finding someone to organize it.


Diplomas and Dropouts

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I'm not sure how I missed this but it showed in a Google Alert recently and I found it interesting. The American Enterprise Institute published a report last June on dropout rates from colleges. The blog post said they wished 4 year graduation rates had been used rather than 6 years rates but, six rates are the norm.

Six year graduation rates are indeed the norm for several reasons. First, the university is not a Wal-Mart where you buy products and then check out. You take courses, have experiences, and get an education. And I do mean education, not training. Getting an education takes time depending on the student, how easily they learn, how hard they work, and to a degree, how long it takes them to decide on a specific major. Second, college is not always inexpensive. Many students will have to take time off to work, either full-time or part-time, and that will add to their graduation time. Others will participate in study abroad programs which are outstanding but may not provide the usual course load. Some students will also participate in internships which may or may not earn credit towards a degree. Third, students are, in some senses, adults and have adult problems. Sometimes these take a while to work through. For these and other reasons, six year graduation rates are used. As long as all schools are being compared by the same standard then the length of time should not be a problem

Mississippi State University is listed with a 58% graduation rate which compares to a state average of 46.1%. The University of Mississippi (Ole Miss as they like to call themselves) clocks in at 53% and the University of Southern Mississippi comes in at 48%. Given that all three of these schools are not able to be very selective; these rates do not really surprise me. To a certain extent they have to take a large portion of students who rank low on national tests, have either low high school GPAs or come from subpar schools with inflated GPAs. We know many of them are not going to be successful but they are given a chance to prove themselves.

Before you assume that the better schools are tougher and have the higher dropout rates, think again. It appears that the tougher schools have higher graduation rates. Harvard comes in at 97%, MIT at 93%, Stanford at 95%. Yale is at 96% and Princeton is at 95%. You might also note that these schools are also some of the most expensive in the nation. It really is no surprise that by only accepting the very best and brightest, as Harvard, MIT, and the like are able to do, that they will have high graduation rates.

Unfortunately, this report only included university level data and not college level data. I would be very interested to see how we stack up among engineering schools. I do know that the Bagley College is working on improving its retention rate but the graduation rate of those who enter our college and graduate from college is higher than the university average. They do not necessarily graduate in engineering but they do graduate from college. I should also point out that the Bagley College has higher admissions guidelines than the rest of the university so we are in fact more selective.

One conclusion which can be gleaned from the report is that an education at a state institution is a good deal. For those students who are capable of academic work, a state university offers a quality education at an affordable rate.

"Revenge of the Nerds: How Barbie Got Her Geek On". Wall Street Journal, 09 April 2010.
Last month the Wall Street Journal ran a story about Barbie's new profession being computer engineering. This profession was determined by a vote, one in which I voted, and the hope amongst us engineers was that giving Barbie the computer engineer profession perhaps some girls would look at the computer engineering as a profession for themselves. But this did not go over well with all. One letter to the editor submitted by Steve Schupbacj was published and I took issue with some of his statements. I then wrote a letter to the WSJ but, as I suspected, it was not published.

Thanks to having my own blog, here are the portions of the original letter I took issue with and the response I sent to the WSJ.


Steve Schupbacj
Sonoma, CA
p. A12 24-25 April 2010 V. CCLV N 95

"So now, like so many times in the past 30 years of feminist antics, little girls, who will be the primary purchasers of Barbie, don't get what they want/ Rather they get a feminist vision of what they should want: a world where little must find inspiration in bits and bytes but not in being what they want, like an anchorwoman in high heels and smart business attire, not that there's anything wrong with that."

"I'd like to propose my own unscientific theory about why there aren't more women in engineering, and it has nothing to do with opportunity. Girls and women easily have equal access to primary and secondary education in mathematics and sciences. Most women simply don't like engineering. It's icky. It's dirty. It's sweaty. Why do you think they call it 'engine-eering'? Most women prefer "tidier professions. Even women who earn an engineering degree mostly end up in nicer allied fields or in management, were they can distance themselves from the messy business of 'doing' engineering."

My response:

Having a computer engineer Barbie is not a feminist movement but is rather an engineering movement which recognizes that women make excellent engineers, more women are needed in the profession, and that the lack of engineers is becoming a matter of national security. Many of us hope that this Barbie will break the stereotypes ill-informed people hold of engineers. Engineering is not icky, dirty, or sweaty as Mr. Schupbachs letter of the 24th indicates. Many of us wear coats and ties (or skirts and blouses as the case may be), work in offices, and are solving the problems of the 21st century, improving the quality of life, preserving the environment, finding new sources of energy and helping people live better lives. Further, many engineers do indeed end up in management at some point in their careers and are they highly valued for their ability to solve problems and tackle difficult issues. Gone are the days Doctor Ken and Nurse Barbie and here are the days of engineer Barbie. Welcome to the 21st century.

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