DEGREE OF DIFFICULTY
The Concord Review
1 March 2010
In gymnastics, performances are judged not just on execution but also on the degree of difficulty. The same system is used in diving and in ice skating. An athlete is of course judged on how well they do something, but their score also includes how hard it was to do that particular exercise.
One of the reasons, in my view, that more than a million of our high school graduates each year are in remedial courses after they have been accepted at colleges is that the degree of difficulty set for them in their high school courses has been too low, by college standards.
Surveys comparing the standards of high school teachers and college professors routinely discover that students who their teachers judge to be very well prepared, for instance in reading, research and writing, are seen as not very well prepared by college professors.
According to the Diploma to Nowhere report issued last summer by the Strong American Schools project, hundreds of thousands of our High School graduates [more than a million each year], with their diplomas and college acceptances in their hands, are surprised, embarrassed and depressed to find that, after getting As and Bs in their high school courses, even in the “hard” ones, they are judged to be not ready for college work and must take non-credit remedial courses to make up for the academic deficiencies that they naturally assumed they did not have.
If we could imagine a ten point degree-of-difficulty scale for high school courses, surely arithmetic would rank near the bottom, say at a one, and calculus would rank at the top, near a ten. Courses in Chinese and Physics, and perhaps AP European History, would be near the top of the scale as well.
When it comes to academic writing, however, and the English departments only ask their students for personal and creative writing, and the five-paragraph essay, [and college admissions people ask for 500-word "college" personal essays], they are setting the degree of difficulty at or near the bottom of the academic writing scale. This standard kind of writing might be the equivalent of having our math students blocked from moving beyond fractions and decimals.
Naturally, students who have achieved high grades on their high school writing, but at a very low level of difficulty, are likely to be shocked when they are asked to write a 10-20-page research paper when they enter college. They have never encountered that degree of difficulty in their high school careers.
It would be as if math students were taking only decimals and fractions, and then being asked to solve elementary calculus problems when they start their higher education.
I was shocked to discover that even the most famous program for gifted students in the United States, the Johns Hopkins Center for Talented Youth, which began as a search for mathematically precocious youth, and has very challenging programs for bright students in the summer, when it comes to writing, has sponsored a contest for “Creative Minds” to have students do “Creative Nonfiction.” This genre turns out to be like a diary entry about some event or circumstance in the author’s life, together with their feelings about it.
This may fit very well with the degree of difficulty in many if not most high school English classes, but, even if it is done well (and wins the contest, for example) it falls very short of the expectations for academic writing at the college level.
My main experience for the last thirty years or so, has been with high school writing in the social studies, principally history. I started The Concord Review in 1987, as the only journal in the world for the academic papers of high school students. My expectation was that students might send me their 4,000-word history research papers, of the sort which the International Baccalaureate requires of its Diploma students.
I did receive some excellent IB Extended Essays, and I have now published 890 papers by secondary students from 44 states and 36 other countries, but as time went by, the level-of-difficulty in submissions went up, as did the excellence in their execution.
These students who sent me longer and better essays, did so on their own initiative, inspired, by the chance for recognition, and the example of their peers, to raise the degree of difficulty themselves, even as each set of gymnasts, divers, and ice skaters do for the Olympics every four years. I began receiving first-class 8,000-word papers, then 13,000-word papers from high school history scholars. The longest I have published was 21,000 words, on the Mountain Meadows Massacre in Utah in 1857, by a girl who had also taken time to be a nationally-ranked equestrian, an activity which also features a degree-of-difficulty measure. Students like the ones I publish find themselves mobbed when they get to college, by their peers who have never had to write a research paper before.
We now require too few of our high school students to read nonfiction books—another failure in setting an appropriate degree of difficulty—and we set the degree-of-difficulty level far too low when it comes to academic writing. We should consider giving up this destructive practice of holding the performance of our students to such a low standard, one that disables too many of them for early success in higher education. Lots of our high school students can and will meet a higher standard, if we just offer it to them.