Doing the Impossible

This week I received the alumni news from my high school, Chaminade, an all-male Catholic institution on Long Island. Photos from this year’s graduation graced the cover dated July 2013. Normal stuff. Then this:

[Guy’s name] who graduated with a four-year cumulative average of 100 percent, is shown at left…

To explain the magnitude of this let me state that at Chaminade, averages are kept in tenths and even hundredths of a point and are displayed with pride in the entry foyer. In addition, in an average year, 99 percent of the graduating class goes on to college, and about 1 percent, every year, are appointed to service academies. In other words, this place is highly competitive and the kids are pretty dang smart.

I had to do the math. To get credit for a 100 percent average over four years, this dude had to average over 99.95 percent, otherwise, it would have been rounded down to 99.9. I made some assumptions with regard to the number of tests and quizzes per week and I estimate that he answered a total of 186,480 questions in his four years. Over that time period he only got fewer than 93 answers wrong.

Wait, it gets better.

If tradition at the school holds, each subject has a comprehensive exam at the end of the year which accounts for 50 percent of the grade for the year. By comprehensive, I mean comprehensive. The test includes questions about material taught from September through June. Again, making some assumptions about questions per test over the four years, I estimate about 7,000 questions. To achieve the necessary 99.95 percent, he would be allowed to get three or fewer of the 7,000 answers incorrect over the four year period.

Say what!

[Guy’s name] is off to Columbia in the Fall.

Disclaimer: In speaking with a classmate of mine he offered some additional thoughts: 

  1. Standards at the school may have changed in a few ways: a) Extra credit and makeup work were not an option when we attended. If this is no longer the case 100 percent is a bit more doable. b) Grading standards may be relaxed as well. Meaning, this 100 percent may be based on an over 99.5 percent average. 
  2. If anything my assumption with regard to the number of questions may be on the low side by a factor almost two, meaning the total number of question could be near 350,000. 

PS – This post would receive a grade of 90 or so, due to excessive use of the passive voice. Way too many usages of the very “to be.” Be, am, is, are, was, were, been, being.

6 thoughts on “Doing the Impossible

  1. You are wise to consider that standards and grading rules might have changed. For example, many public schools now use a 5-point grading scale, skewing historical comparisons.

    However, if grading has become “easier” then you would see a change in the grade distribution. The school’s Normal curve distributing gpa frequency along the x-axis might shifted left or right, or become more narrow or broader. If this year’s curve is broader and/or the mean shifted right then the odds of the achievement are improved.

    Understanding changes in the environment, measured by the Normal curve, is important from a management perspective. He is clearly an outlier, but management would want to know how unusual an outlier he is, and whether this is an indication that organizational changes are needed.

    Finally, what is this remarkable GPA really measuring? Does it really get at academic excellence, or something less? Is it a generalist achievement, or does he also show excellence in one area of study? It certainly shows an ability to concentrate and focus consistently, but can he also do creative work (whether technical or not?) Lots of research shows that the best academic performers in high school usually have only modest-achievements (or worse) during the rest of their lives; is this fellow doing anything about that?

    Ed, he certainly made a remarkable achievement. And your detailing of the remarkable degree of consistency required of an adolescent to execute helps bring this home. But in this era of constant student testing and celebration of TAKS and SAT scores, this achievement is a bit hollow. It misses the point of what a good education should include.

  2. Jerry, I agree that I need a better understanding of the grading system. I can tell you that I do know some younger folks who have attended and have told me that the high standards at the school have not diminished.

    This GPA measure across ALL academic activity including six core subjects per year (English, Math, History, Science, Foreign Language and Religious Studies) in addition to one of the arts based on academic year. It did not include the PhysEd grade.

    As for SATs my bet is he was in the top 1 percent.

  3. I too attended private school. The studies were very demanding as well as daily quizes and comprehensives. We did not get grades for participation in class or extra work It is really interesting that in a lot of schools how grades and testing have been adjusted by not what you should have learned but what you need to know to pass standardized state tests.

    Basics in math, phonics and languages are not being taught. We are teaching our students to rely on calculators, word programs and spelling ckecks.

    Critical thinking, problem solving, speaking and writing have gone by the way side in lieu of knowing just enough to get by.

    The average student has to work twice as hard because in alot of educational venues the better student and the students that struggle are given more attention again for the sake of standardized tests and parents demands.

    We pay taxes for this kind of educational process? I am glad as a parent to have provided my kids with a private school education. Even though the tuition was and additional expense. It was well worth it.They were both above average kids who worked hard and are now successful professional adults.

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