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Failing grades could soon be passé

Public schools embrace ‘no-zero’ policies designed to encourage students to try harder


Failing grades could soon be passé

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 is a freelancer for WORLD Digital. She is a graduate of the World Journalism Institute, and she holds a bechelor degree in English from Hillsdale College and a multiple subject teaching credential from California State University. Samantha resides in Chico, Calif., with her husband and their two sons.


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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.