Different River

”You can never step in the same river twice.” –Heraclitus

May 17, 2005

Massachusetts Considers Banning Bad Report Cards

Filed under: — Different River @ 7:21 pm

Legislation proposed in the Massachusetts Senate and House would, if passed, ban bad report cards, group projects, and quite possibly difficult exams. The law would apply to all private and public schools in the state. Whether it would include colleges and universities probably depends on how Massachusetts law defines “school.”

This sounds like either some sort of a joke, or a class president’s campaign promise come true. But it’s neither. Here’s the full text of the proposed law:

An Act relative to threats in schools

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives in General Court assembled, and by the authority of the same, as follows:

Chapter 7 of the General Laws is hereby amended by inserting after section 37N the following section:—

Section 37O. Whoever, in any public or private school in the Commonwealth, produces alone or in concert with another or others, a document by any means, containing the name or names of fellow student [sic] or school personnel or both which would thereby cause anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort to any person or groups of persons shall be punished by imprisonment in a jail or house of correction for not more than 2 ½ years or by a fine of not more than $5,000 or by both such fine and imprisonment in a jail or house of correction.

(Emphasis added.)

Now, the plain meaning of this would include, for example, any document containing a teacher’s name (“school personnel”) which cause “anxiety” “to any person.” That would include, obvliously, a difficult test with the teacher’s name on it. (“Calculus — Final Exam — Mr. Smith” at the top of the page.) Surely a difficult exam would cause anxiety to some students.

A bad report card — which would typically include the names of the student and that students teacher(s) — would also cause “anxiety, unrest or fear,” perhaps of parental reactions, and even “personal discomfort” in a student who wanted to do better, even if that student has no fear of parental reactions. (Remember, the law says “anxiety, unrest, fear or personal discomfort.” The “or” means that only one of those four elements must be present for a document ot violate the law.)

Indeed, even a good report card or a test with a high score could “cause … personal discomfort” to students who got lower grades or scores.

When I was in high school and tried out for a play, the results were announced by posting a list of called-back (and then casted) students on the door of the drama teacher’s classroom. One of my most anxious moments in high school was reading that list to see if my name was on it. That was a document containing “names of fellow students” and it produced anxiety, that would be illegal. (Only such a “document” would be illegal, mind you — if the drama teacher memorized the cast and read it out loud to the students that would be legal regardless of how much anxiety were produced.) After all, as Zero Intelligence points out, “The law states that if any person feels anxious because of a document with names on it the list writer is a criminal. It does not even go so far as to restrict the victim pool to people who are actually on the list.” In the case of casting school plays, the greatest axiety would be to those not on the list!

Zero Intelligence also points out that this law could ban group projects and teachers’ performance reviews. But there’s an easy way around that last one — just give all teachers immediate tenure upon hiring, or review the performance only of tenured teachers. Those teachers’ pay and continued employment is not at all related to their performance reviews (if any), so they would have nothing to be anxious about. (In public schools anyway. But the law applies to private schools also, so this law would force private schools to either eliminate performance reviews, or make the reviews unrelated to pay or continued employment.)

Now, you might argue that whoever wrote the law didn’t mean that. You might even argue that based on the title, which is not normally considered part of a law (as far as I know). But in that case, I would respond that whoever wrote the law needs to re-take some course in a relevant subject, like English composition, and learn the meaning of words like “any” and “person” and “cause” and maybe even “document.” And that the four (so far) legislators who have signed on as co-sponsors need to re-take some course in “reading comprehension.”

Keep in mind, by the way, that these legislators are elected by the people of Massachusetts, which includes most of the faculty, staff, and many students of some of our nation’s most prestigious institutions of higher learning, such as Harvard University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Fitchburg State College.

Zero Intelligence has links to the legislators, in case you want to contact them. I wonder if you should do so in writing. Would it do any good? ;-)

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