TT: Bizarre Education

Looking for the Wednesday Wandering?  Page back and tell me about the times you’ve felt like an alien.  Then come and help me educate Alan on just how the American education system works!

ALAN: Every so often, as I read American novels and watch American films and

Patron of Teachers

TV shows, I find myself brought up with a short, sharp shock when some social and cultural custom that seems quite normal to the characters in the story comes across to me as utterly alien and bizarre.

And nowhere is this better exemplified than in the American educational system. I simply don’t understand it at all.

JANE: Actually, Alan, I sympathize.  My education was mostly in private Catholic schools.  Many of the rituals are pretty unfamiliar to me, too.  However, maybe our readers can supply what I don’t understand.

ALAN: I first stumbled across the differences in a minor way when I was at university. We had an American maths lecturer (except he called it math) for a term (except he called it a semester). At the end of the term he gave us an exam, (except he called it a quiz). And he didn’t mark the exam, he graded the quiz. None of us had any idea what he was talking about.

JANE: Maths vs math…  Oddly enough, this came up just the other night when we were having dinner with our good friends, Mike and Yvonne.  Yvonne was showing us some amazing knitting patterns designed by a professor of “maths.”  Mike, who is himself a mathematician, commented: “Well, they say sport and we say ‘sports,” so I guess this is the law of conservation of “esses.”

ALAN: Such strange usage, from both points of view. We must have seemed equally as odd to our visiting American as he was to us. But we really found it hard to take his quiz seriously. After all, a quiz is a game show on television with magnificent prizes to be won!

JANE: Well, not in this case.   I find it interesting that he called an end of the year test a “quiz.”  Normally, “quiz” is used to indicate a short test, meant to measure comprehension of, say, the previous night’s reading assignment.   (Or, cynically, whether the student in question bothered to do the assignment at all.) The term “exam” is usually used for both mid-term and end of term tests.

ALAN: Oh, it wasn’t a significant test. It had no importance at all in the grand scheme of things. It didn’t count towards our final marks or anything. That’s probably why he referred to it as a quiz. Amusingly, every single one of us failed it, much to his bewilderment. We’d never seen multi-choice exams before and we didn’t know how to cope. The curious idea that questions had unequivocally right or wrong answers with nothing in between was quite foreign to us. We were used to much more discursive questions, even in maths, that rigorously factual discipline.

Talking about grades rather than marks, what’s a grade point average, and why is it important?

JANE: How grade point average (or GPA) is calculated varies a little, but it basically works out like this.  The standard grades of A (best) to F(failed) are assigned number values.   A is worth four points, whereas F is worth zero points.

By the way, “F” stands for “failed,” which is  why the grades go A, B, C, D, F, skipping “E.”

If a school uses “plus” grades, the calculation is changed so that while “B” is worth 3 points, B plus is 3.5 points.  If the school uses both plus and minus grades, the number values are adjusted accordingly, so there is a slight difference between a B minus and a C plus.

Then the values are added up and averaged by the number of classes taken, resulting in the student’s GPA.  This is usually calculated for each term or semester.  (We use both words pretty much interchangeably).

So students might have a high GPA in their major area of study, but a somewhat lower overall GPA.  Mine certainly went up when I was done with required (sometimes called “general distribution”) classes and focusing on the things I was good at.

So the GPA is a way of calculating if a student is performing well overall or only in their major.

ALAN: I’ve just checked, and New Zealand universities now seem to be using GPA to keep track of their students, though their method of calculating it is much more complex than yours with all sorts of curious weighting factors built in to mess up the arithmetic. And they don’t omit “E”! It isn’t much used in England, though I have discovered that my old university (Nottingham) is considering introducing it. This is causing great controversy; very few are in favour of it.

In my day, people kept track by just glancing at the results for each subject in the end of year exams. And exam results were reported in percentages. A pass mark was generally considered to be about 70%.

JANE: Yes.  I think that’s about right.  That would be a “C.”  Weighted grades…  I’ve never liked those and never used them when I taught.

So what other questions do you have?

ALAN: Oh lots and lots! But the next bit gets complicated. Perhaps we’d better leave it for next time.


10 Responses to “TT: Bizarre Education”

  1. Heteromeles Says:

    Fun stuff! I just watched my niece give a valedictorian speech, so I’m thinking aboutGPA too. One thing: a “+” grade is 0.3, not 0.5, and a “-” grade is 0.7. For example, 4.0 is a “straight A,” 3.7 is an A-, and 3.3 is a B+. The dividing line between A and B is 3.5. Hope this helps.

    • Alan Robson Says:

      OK — here we go again. What on earth is a “valedictorian speech”?


      • Heteromeles Says:

        Person with the highest GPA (the valedictorian) gives a speech at graduation.

      • janelindskold Says:


        I really don’t get your final sentence, but maybe I’m slow with all the smoke from wild fires.

      • heteromeles Says:

        Sorry it’s getting so smoky Jane. I hope they get those fires under control.

        In GPA terms, 3.5 is the dividing line between an A and a B (this is without curves and so forth). This is for a *class* grade, not a test grade. A student with a 3.51 gets an A- grade in the class, while, a student with a 3.49 gets a B+ in the class. On *tests*, an A counts as 4.0, an A- counts as 3.7, while a B+ counts as 3.3, and a B counts as 3.0, and so on (F’s count for zero, and I had one memorable teacher who gave an F- for cheating, at -0.5.). If there are three tests in a class and the student gets an A, an A-, and a B, the student’s grade for the class is (4+3.7+3)/3 or a 3.56 in the class, an A- grade.

        Hope this clears it up. I know you gave out quite a few grades, so I’m sorry if I confused the explanation.

  2. Alan Robson Says:

    How embarassing!

    Nothing like hiding your light behind a glass bushel for all to see, I suppose. Speaking personally, it sounds like a perfect motivation for deliberately failing my exams…


    • Louis Robinson Says:

      the term itself is derived from [probably medieval] Latin: vale – farewell & dicere – to say. thus, a farewell speech. a rather long-winded ‘good bye and good luck. we’re outta this place!’, given on behalf of the graduating class. usually by a budding politician 😉

  3. heteromeles Says:

    Um, I wish my niece was a budding politician. In this case, she tied for the highest GPA, so she got to give a short speech up front. They gave her an outline of how to do it, including “must have a quote by a famous person,” and “must explicate quote.” So she chose an annoying quote from one of their teachers and had some fun with it.

  4. janelindskold Says:

    heteromeles —

    I get your clarification! Thanks for taking the time.

  5. Other Jane Says:

    One more complication to all of the GPA calculations happens when the high school students take advanced classes. Two of my nieces took AP (Advanced Placement) classes in high school.

    The GPA scoring on and AP class is higher – for example an “A” AP History class is worth 5 instead of 4. At the end of the year, students take an AP exam and if they pass it, then they get college credits (assuming the college they go to accepts the AP credits.)

    This is how some students now get a higher than 4.0 average. My twin nieces were co-valedictorians when they graduated with 4.2 GPAs.

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