Do grading systems need a “failure” option? That is the question being increasingly asked in schools across the country. The latest school to eliminate the F is Sunrise Park Middle School in White Bear Lake, Minnesota which posted a videotape on a new grading scale which does not allow for any grade below 50 percent. It also bans the use of a student’s behavior or class record to be considered in grading.
One of the areas of the greatest attention in recent years for anti-racism reforms in schools has been grading and testing systems. Whole university systems have abandoned standardized testing as inimical to minority advancement while secondary school systems have eliminated expulsions due to disruptive conduct, removed proficiency requirements in Math and English, and eliminated advanced programs for learning.
In Minnesota, District Superintendent Dr. Wayne Kazmierczak has campaigned for grading reform. He has argued that “grading can be one of the largest areas in which systemic racism and inequities are perpetuated,” according to the school website.
That view is reflected in the YouTube video by Principal Christina Pierre and Associate Principal Norman Bell who insist that the emphasis should be on what a student knows and not how they behave. Moreover, they explain that there will no longer be failing grades as shown on the new grading scale:
Frankly, I like some of the reforms. For example, allowing students to retake exams seems a good way to get them to actually learn material rather than focus entirely on test performance.
I also recognize that class disruption penalties can produce racially disparate results and can reflect bias. However, grades have traditionally included class performance and conduct, including late submissions or bad conduct. Frankly, I would prefer greater efforts at allowing students to ameliorate such bad attendance or conduct grades rather than eliminate any grading based on misconduct. Schools teach conduct as well as content lessons. Indeed, they reinforce many of the lessons of parents at home. I would like less emphasis on punishing bad conduct, including expulsions. However, I would not eliminate such penalties. Such actions can be monitored and reviewed to recognize racially discriminatory motives or patterns.
The elimination of the F grade is an interesting debate. I am not sure that I would favor such an elimination rather than allowing for opportunities to remove the grade. However, I am open to such proposals. the use of “incomplete” has its benefits. Once again, I think that it is very important to try to avoid failing students, which only further isolates and demoralizes students. Faced with failing grades across the board, a student is more likely to give up and drop out. Often a test with no points reflects a serious underlying problem that needs to be addressed. The question is whether anything is really lost by treating such tests as “incomplete” as opposed to a failure. I think that the important thing is to allow students to retake tests and keep working to learn the material.
However, the greater danger is grade inflation and lowering proficiency standards. That is why I have opposed the elimination of standardized testing. I was particularly moved by the frustration of a mother in Baltimore recently who complained that her son was in the top half of his class despite failing all but three of his classes. Graduating students without proficiency in English or Math is the worst possible path for these students, schools and society.
I would allow teachers to continue to grade on class performance and records. However, I think that the effort to allow students to retake exams and change grades is a good one from an educational standpoint. This is not simply because of race differentials. It benefits all students at a time of great stress and dysfunctional pressures. Our job as educators is first and foremost to teach material and help students learn. Accordingly, I like the policy to retake/revise tests, quizzes, papers, projects within a 10-day window after the grade is posted.
I think that there is common ground in these often heated debates. For my part, I would keep standardized tests, reinforced proficiency requirements for graduation, and keep grading based in part on classroom performance. I would also require any grading of class performance to be separately noted and explained to allow for monitoring and review. I would also implement the changes on allowing for the retaking of tests, quizzes, and projects.
What is lost in these debates is that we all care about education and these kids. We should be able to reach good-faith resolutions to help those students struggling in the system. We need to keep them invested in doing better while reinforcing the need to be personally accountable. We need however to stop screaming at each other and look at new ways of approaching these problems.