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Doing away with the "F" grade

By no means was I a strong student in high school or college. Average would be generous. But come on, if you FAIL to complete the work or FAIL to demonstrate the required knowledge on an exam, why should you receive an incomplete? Not to be that "tough love" jerk or anything, but sorry kiddies, there are no "incompletes" in the real world. You either get the work done (and done well) or you receive a big ol' fail and you're fired. I think all the right questions are being asked throughout the article. Full story:


Failure is impossible for high school students! (No, really).

What would school have been like if you never had to worry about getting an F? Students at West Potomac High School in Alexandria, Va., are about to find out, the Washington Post reports.

Earlier this year, the school all but eradicated the standard mark for “failure”, instead supplying wayward students with the letter “I” for incomplete. So what does an “I” give you that an “F” doesn’t? Time to redeem yourself, for starters. Students with an “I” on their report card can (literally) learn their lesson and catch up over the year, at which point they will be given a grade for their mastery of the material, just like any other student.

So is this an inspired move to get those marginal students on track and learning, or just another way in which we’re coddling underachieving kids and hobbling the rest? Parents, educators and students are divided.

Mary Mathewson, an English teacher at Potomac High tells the Post that the new standard not only cripples teachers in that it "takes away one of the very few tools [they] have to get kids to learn," but it gives them “an out,” resulting in a system in which “kids are under the impression they can do it whenever they want to, and it's not that big of a deal.”

Pointing out that the A-F grading system has not been thrown out entirely, but rather, redesigned to reach those who might not learn at the same rate as their peers, Fairfax County’s assistant superintendent for instructional services asked the Post, “"If we really want students to know and do the work, why would we give them an F and move on? I think the students who are struggling should not be penalized for not learning at the same rate as their peers."

Alternative grading is nothing new: Potomac High joins good company—some of the nation's highest educational institutions, including the law schools of Stanford University, Yale University, and University of California, Berkeley all employ non-traditional grading systems. Other high schools like the Big Picture high schools in Rhode Island, which focuses on internships, have found that learning goes better when uncomplicated by grades. The measure of their success? Improvement in their standardized achievement scores, most of their seniors going to college, and high college graduation rates. Proponents of this kind of grading method have long argued that letters are arbitrary, overly focused on the right answer instead of the thinking behind it, and have no corollary relationship from school to school—in other words, not “fair” from the get-go.

But will the process of learning for the sake of learning be lost on notoriously gratification-minded high school kids? And what about the value of learning from losing in the first place?

“Americans tend to frame things in terms of contests and wars that must be won or lost," writer John Schwartz says in his New York Times essay, "Lessons Learned in the Losing." "Many challenges, however, are about hanging in there and managing a bad situation. Losing prepares you for the slog that is life. The world doesn’t give us many finish lines, but it does give us the long run.”

While his focus is on high school sports rather than grades, I can't help but think Schwartz has an excellent point here about teaching our children to persevere in the face of challenges, even if it's hard to watch. After all, what are we trying to prepare our kids for in school, if not life?

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11/16/2010 12:32AM
Doing away with the "F" grade
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