Failing grades could soon be passé

Education | Public schools embrace ‘no-zero’ policies designed to encourage students to try harder
by Samantha Gobba
Posted 7/08/16, 04:23 pm

Middle and high school students should be able to skip tests, blow off projects, leave homework unfinished and still make grades equalling 50 percent or more, some school districts have determined.

Proponents say the increasingly popular “no-zero” grading policies, adopted by public school districts in Maryland, Washington, D.C., and South Carolina, motivate students to recover from a failing grade.

Opponents of the policy, such as Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B Fordham Institute, a national education think tank, told me the no-zero grading policies are part of a larger problem plaguing the U.S. education system—a refusal to uphold standards.

“It gives in to the impulse to pass kids along instead of expecting kids to meet a standard in order to earn a good grade,” he said.

Taking away teachers’ ability to mete out appropriate grades essentially ties their hands.

“Teenagers are not stupid,” Petrilli said. “If they can bomb some test or assignments or not turn them in, and not be harmed by that, they will figure it out.”

But many public school administrators are concerned about the emotional state of students who have failed too many assignments to pull up their grade in time to pass.

“The idea that we’re not putting zeroes in the grade book or not putting grades below 61 has been really a positive thing for children who might struggle with or without a lot of support at home,” Karen Kapp, principal of Sevier Middle School in South Carolina, told Fox News.

Kapp already has implemented a policy at her school that takes effect this fall for all Greenville County, S.C., schools: Students will receive 61 percent, instead of a zero, for missing or plagiarized work.

In Virginia’s Fairfax County, a new policy determines students need a second chance at grades lower than 80 percent, that attendance and classroom behaviors cannot be reflected in grades, and that zeros should not be given unless a student has multiple chances to complete coursework.

“It definitely provides that opportunity for a kid to catch up,” Sam Hadenberg, a special education English teacher at Farfax’s Mount Vernon High School, told The Washington Post.

But the policy does have unintended consequences.

“Many students have already started to figure out that they don’t have to do very much but they can still pass,” he admitted.

In some places, like Montgomery County, Md., the struggle to cope with no-zero grading policies has been going on for a decade. A 2006 survey of teachers and administrators reflects mixed appreciation for and frustration with the “reteach and reassess” and 50 percent policy implemented two years before. The policy aimed to make sure students had every chance to learn the material and earn the highest grade possible.

But one high school teacher told surveyors the policy only hurts upper-level students who take advantage of it. Teachers also reported the 50 percent rule, which required at least a 50 percent grade for all assignments, no matter the quality of the work, sapped students’ motivation and didn’t accurately represent their comprehension.

John Mitchell with Christian Educators Association International also emphasized the need for accuracy in grade reporting. While an individual teacher should be free to give students grace periods for late work or allow the occasional student to make up a test score, he said imposing a county-wide, no-zero grading policy is “arbitrary and contrived.”

“The way motivation has to be dealt with is through a caring teacher who gives encouragement to a student [who failed], but who did better this week than they did last week,” he said.

Giving a zero does sometimes provide accurate feedback, he said, adding that Christian teachers need to know when to give mercy and when to uphold a standard that “displays justice.” 
“Students do know that there is a difference between doing a zero grade and a 50,” he told me. “Not to say that they shouldn’t be able to make up the work within reasonable guidelines, but that students need to receive a truthful message about what they are doing.”

Lindsey Burke, a Heritage Foundation fellow in education policy, echoed that sentiment, and added that the county-wide policies hurt schools’ abilities to operate independently. Problems occur when “you have a uniform policy for a very large school district or state, with children being assigned to those schools based on their zip codes.”

Parents are subsequently left with no choice between school models, she said: “In a system of widespread and universal school choice, parents could choose schools that grade students through a framework that makes sense to them.”

Motivation for widespread no-zero grading policies may stem from school administrators wanting to maintain the school’s image. For years, state and federal officials have held high schools accountable for their graduation rates, Petrilli said.

“All sorts of policies have been boosting, possibly inflating, high school graduation rates,” he said.

The initial idea was that high school graduates fared better later in life than dropouts.

“But that was the case when there were at least some minimal standards for what it took to get a high school diploma,” he said. “If we are lowering those standards, if we’re making it so that everyone gets passed along, whether they can read their own diploma or not, the value of that high school diploma is going to plummet.”

Samantha Gobba

Samantha reports on the pro-life movement for WORLD Digital.

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  • Zinger
    Posted: Fri, 07/08/2016 05:15 pm

    So when these morons get into the workforce and fail to meet deadlines with quality work, the boss will be understanding and not fire their rear ends?

  •  White Lab Coat's picture
    White Lab Coat
    Posted: Fri, 07/08/2016 05:35 pm

    My recent 30 year career as a Florida high school and middle school science teacher was exciting and rewarding, while allowing for my Christian character to create opportunities for high level youth while building trust with struggling students. The only students that did not achieve success were the ones that were rarely in school or refused to work. Individuals worked to the level(s) they chose or at least had the ability & skills for. This mirrored the adult life that was just around the corner. The professional in the classroom created the appropriate environment for success for each student. 

    A former principal whom I worked for brought a program of "no fail" to our school in 1992. Teachers were required to rework and retest all students averaging D & F grades on EVERY assignment and test. What a nightmare for the teachers! A few students needed the break, while the majority in the category played the game until the teacher figured out how to make the passing grade!

    Discipline procedures were also changed at the time. This was by the school district and was required of all schools. A paper referral for misbehavior once required a complete report of all inappropriate actions taken by a student. 5 infractions may have occurred and were required to be reported. The new policy only allowed 1 infraction to be named on a referral. Only 1 referral was allowed per student per day. I sat in the audience the following year at the first school board meeting during which the "Improved Discipline Procedures" were presented to the public and local media. Referrals were down over 50%! The superintendent bragged to the TV cameras about the strong, effective, new discipline policies and how the data backed it up. 

    Before I retired, I was told that no student would receive a D or an F for a final grade. Do you want to guess how apathetic students responded and how that often brought down the entire classroom?

    I do not understand how our future nation will strengthen it's character and build strong local communities when a significant number of school children can be rewarded for lack of effort, are not told what is right and wrong, and are not allowed to learn the consequences of their poor personal choices. 

    Come to think of it - are the first generations of students that experienced this now working in Washington?

  • Fani's picture
    Posted: Sat, 05/27/2017 12:00 pm

    White Lab Coat: Thank you for taking the time to outline the specific "interventions" you were required to live under and participate in while a public school teacher. This article was published in July of 2016; I am writing in May of 2017. Things are only getting worse, I assure you. I recently changed school districts, for a variety of reasons. My new job is just in the next county over. I am amazed that the behavior of students in my new school is so much better than the behavior of students in my previous school! My previous school is in one of the counties that is regarded nationally as superior. However, teachers are confronted and disciplined if they write referrals. My previous principal loved to brag about the data that proved student referrals were on the decline, and grades were on the increase. Of course they were! Teachers were disciplined for putting Ds or Es on report cards! And student behavior was out of control in most classrooms and in the hallways.

    Now, in my new school, administrators ASK me to write a referral! And over half of the time when I ask a student to step into the hallway so that I can privately address his or her behavior, an administrator will stop and ask me if I want the student to be removed from the class! And if I say yes, I am not punished for that! It is flat-out refreshing to receive that kind of support. My classroom is calm and positive, and students behave well. However, this year my school adopted the 50% rule for the first time. I know where this is going, and I'm grateful that I will be able to retire in a few years. As I sat in a recent meeting that triumphantly announced the improved grades this year, I had to close my eyes to keep from rolling my eyes. Our principal attributed this to our dedication to student success! Does she believe that? Or does she think we're stupid? Either way, both academic motivation and student behavior are going to be declining rapidly, and "no one" will understand why. But the data will be great!

  • AlanE
    Posted: Fri, 07/08/2016 08:01 pm

    With all the interventions mandated these days, it is more difficult not to graduate than to graduate, provided only that you don't drop out of school altogether. It has long since passed the point where the value of a high school diploma has plummeted.

  • Auslander
    Posted: Sun, 07/10/2016 11:15 pm

    many public school administrators are concerned about the emotional state of students

    This is the problem, right here.  Quit treating them like little delicate flowers because in doing so you are preparing them for deep disillusionment when they come into contact with the Real Grownup World.  Send students distraught over their grades to guidance counselors or remedial instruction.  Moreover, the threat of being held back a grade while all your peers move on used to be a really good motivation to hit the books.