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Smart boys, bad grades?

Grading system is biased against boys' different learning style, authors say

Published: Tuesday, March 20 2007 12:11 a.m. MDT

Gage Wilkinson, left, and his dad, Chuck, clown around at their Draper home. Gage is a sophomore at Alta High and is having trouble keeping his grades up.

Jeffrey D. Allred, Deseret Morning News

Your son's report card has arrived. Open it. A, A, A, F, A, A-, D. Sound familiar?

Smart boys are falling behind in school, and some say it's because of an anti-boy bias in the current grading system.

"We went through a huge bank of tests ... to determine why my son, as a genius, is getting grades that are C's and D's, why his grades go A, A, A, F, F, A, A, A," said Chuck Wilkinson, whose son, Gage, is a sophomore at Alta High School. "There's nothing in between, and it's very frustrating to me."

Chuck Wilkinson said it is upsetting to know his son is smart enough but is not getting the grades to get into college. "He gets an F in science last year and scores second in the whole system in the science overall testing," he said.

This is an issue that affects millions and millions of boys, said William Draves, co-author of "Smart Boys, Bad Grades," who was a speaker at the Building Boys Success Conference at Utah Valley State College.

"The grading system has become gender-biased and is skewed," he said. "There are millions of smart boys who are testing at a very high level and getting really low grades."

In the book, Draves and co-author Julie Coates highlight the consequences of the grading bias, which they say causes one-third of boys to get worse grades than girls and, as a result, fewer boys are getting into and graduating from college.

Female undergraduates have become the majority in higher education, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. In 1970, 42 percent of undergraduates were female; in 2000, their numbers had swelled to 56 percent.

An article Coates and Draves published through the Learning Resources Network says that boys are getting bad grades in school because they don't do as well on homework as girls and are graded on behavior that is unrelated to what they have learned.

The authors say that's because boys tend to learn differently than girls and, among other things related to behavior instead of intellect, they often turn in their homework late. Eighty-four percent of teachers report boys turn in homework late, they say.

"The way to find out how your boy is actually doing is not to look at the grade but to look at his test scores," Draves said. "If you want to know academically what he knows and if he's learning something, you look at test scores rather than grades because test scores are gender-neutral."

Gage Wilkinson is a classic case of what Draves and Coates have pointed out. Chuck Wilkinson said his son's bad grades have never been a result of not knowing the material.

"At no point he's demonstrating that he doesn't know it, he's just demonstrating that he doesn't do it," Chuck Wilkinson said. It's not an issue of laziness, either; Draves said it's the way boys learn: They simply don't do it because they already know how.

"When they can do something, they want to move on," Draves said. "Boys are geared toward new challenges, and they're fine with being tested because they're fine with demonstrating what they know. But they are unwilling to do a repetitive, what is for them a boring task, over and over again when they could be learning something."

For Gage Wilkinson, this is the case. "I know most of the information," he said. "I guess it's pretty true that I don't like the busy work."

But that's not the only reason he gets bad grades, he said.

"I kind of procrastinate somewhat," Gage Wilkinson said. "Not a whole lot, but some. Sometimes I get bored in class — I guess sometimes I don't write stuff down, so I forget and don't turn it in."

Chuck Wilkinson worries about his son's future.

"The yardstick, obviously, is a grading system which is going to determine what type of college he goes to," he said. "If he keeps (continuing to get bad grades), it's going to be a junior college because he won't be able to get into any other university. That's the part that worries me."

Draves said teachers justify not making allowances for boys' different learning styles and the grading system by saying it prepares boys for the work force.

"There's no validity to any of that," Draves said. "The boys will turn in homework late, but they'll show up to the workplace on time." This is especially true for technology-oriented boys.

Coates and Draves make a stronger case in their books.

"What is bad behavior for boys in school is good behavior in the workplace," they write in "Nine Shift." "The very same behaviors boys are punished for in school, boys are being rewarded for when they enter the workplace. This is because taking risks, being entrepreneurial and being collaborative are all behaviors that lead to success in the work force today.

"Today's schools are bent on obsolete educational values such as conformity, discipline and behavior totally unrelated to learning and academic achievement."

But David Larson, a fourth-grade teacher at Farrer Elementary School in Provo, said homework "is more about accountability than a grade," he said. "It's a teacher's way to monitor progress and see if they need help in a specific area."

He said he's had students score well on the test even though they didn't do anything during class. "I can't really punish them for that, but at the same time they need to be responsible for turning in everything," Larson said

And contrary to what Draves and Coates say, Larson thinks the accountability of turning in homework helps prepare children for their futures.

Larson said both tests and homework are a way to monitor progress.

"If guys aren't doing their homework, I don't know they're not getting it until they take the test," he said. "But if boys are doing well (know the material) at the end of the test, wonderful."

Chuck Wilkinson has gone to great lengths to keep his son from becoming another statistic that proves the theory in the book by Coates and Draves. Gage Wilkinson has been diagnosed with attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, qualifying him to participate in the Individualized Education Program, a government program that allows each student to have his or her education catered to specific needs. Gage's IEP allows him to turn in homework late.

Chuck Wilkinson has also developed a system where Gage is required to write assignments in a planner, ideally enabling him to turn them in on time. Chuck Wilkinson said he's not measuring the grades anymore, but the planner. If he does it well, the good grades should follow. Gage agreed, saying it's the key to GPA success.

"That's like my main thing," he said. "If I wrote everything down, then I would get good grades."

In addition to Chuck Wilkinson's strategy, Draves gives a number of suggestions for parents.

"We have to remain positive," he said. "We've got to say two things every day to our boys. One is, 'How was your day?' because we've got to hear the awful story from him, he's got to have some release. ... The second thing we have to say, when no one else is around and they don't have any way to be embarrassed, like when the light is out, you've got to say, 'You're a good kid' or some words to that effect because he is far more (painfully) aware of this situation than we are, and he has to know that you're an advocate and you're not laying it out on him."

Draves and Coates also suggest on their Web site (www.smartboysbadgrades.com) that parents talk to teachers and provide positive male role models for their sons.

Having male teachers may be one way of doing this, said Winn Egan, chairman of teacher education at Brigham Young University. He said women, as teachers, might not attend to the active learning tendencies of boys during their early years of school because they're not familiar with their learning styles.

"We know that girls, from the outset, are doing better in schools," he said. "Some people theorize that because these boys are taught by women, it may be a lot more difficult for them to identify with gender learning styles ... the fit may not as good, and if they have regular access to men, it might be better for the overall education experience," he said.

Ideally, schools would create an environment that would cater to the educational needs of both genders, he said.

As a male teacher, Larson said it may be good for boys to have a male learning role model, but he doesn't think it makes a significant difference. He said that he personally tends to spend more individual time with the boys who are struggling in class or have behavioral problems more often than girls who have similar problems.

Gage Wilkinson remembers having problems paying attention in class and turning in homework from an early age.

"It was always this way," he said. "On some assignments, I'd just cross out questions because I didn't want to do them. Most of my attention was focused on playing in the third grade."


E-mail: asnyder@desnews.com

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