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Awhile ago, I had a conversation with a fellow who was, shall we say, “quantitatively disinclined.” He complained vehemently about the use of numbers and grades as a sorting mechanism in higher education, and, given my affiliation with honors, he decided to focus his attacks in that direction. “It’s all about SATs, ACTs, and GPAs,” he claimed, “but education is so much more than that!” After quickly agreeing with him, I asked him to describe honors without referencing any grade or scoring system at all. Within minutes, he had a beautiful description of honors as a learning environment where a community of diverse students and teachers alike were challenged to expand their minds and exceed their potential. “Great,” I replied, “You’ve almost sold John Q. Student, but he has one question for you: Can he join?”
The point of my remark was to underscore the importance of selection criteria to honors programs. In determining whom honors serves, such criteria become integral (though not necessarily central) to what honors does, for without a good fit between the program population and its activities, failure will swiftly follow. Of course, as my conversational partner argued, selection criteria need not be quantitatively based; but, I would reply, grades are not limited to quantitative means either. Portfolios, writing samples, interviews, standardized tests, transcripts—all have their strengths and their weaknesses when used as assessments or selection criteria.
Obviously, this discussion is nothing new—one need only peruse the Chronicle of Higher Education or pedagogical journals to find similar opinions gaining in frequency, intensity, and legitimacy. The lead essay of this issue of JNCHC, Larry Andrews’ “Grades, Scores, and Honors,” does an excellent job of analyzing ways to encourage a connection between selection criteria and the purpose of your honors program. What these essays and articles often gloss over or omit entirely, however, is a consideration of the university educational context.