War on standards, no “D” or “F” grades edition

Some of California’s largest school districts are dropping D and F grades. Students who don’t learn the material, pass the final exam, or finish homework by the end of the semester would earn an “incomplete” which, I assume, could be converted to at least a “C” later on. Los Angeles Unified, Oakland Unified, Sacramento City Unified, San Diego Unified are among the districts that will make this move.

According this article, which gushes over the decision, the goals are to cause students to “re-engage” in school and to boost their chances of acceptance into the state’s public colleges. It is also designed to “especially” help “Black, Latino and low-income students,” according to the same source. Who would have guessed that?

As to the first goal, I wonder whether students will become even less engaged if they know they can avoid getting a terrible grade without doing much work. As to the second, what’s the value of trying to hide from California public colleges the fact that an applicant couldn’t earn higher than a “D” in the same time allotted to students who were able to do so?

The answer, I believe, resides in the third goal — helping students of color. But in what sense are Black and Latino students really helped by what George W. Bush called “the soft bigotry of low expectations”?

Beyond these three goals, the abolition of grades below “C” is also said to be a move towards “an entirely different learning system, in which students are assessed by what they’ve learned, not how well they perform on tests on a given day or whether they turn in their homework on time.” But tests are an objective measure of what students have learned. “D” and “F” grades based on low test scores and chronic failure to do homework on time are strong indicators that students haven’t mastered the subject and haven’t really tried to.

As a teacher at a Catholic school in Oakland says:

Ds and Fs play an important role in the classroom. They signal that a student did not learn the material and needs extra help. . .Not reporting Ds and Fs is the equivalent of lying about a student’s progress.

This is the only sensible passage in the article.

Advocates of the new way of grading pretend to be concerned that the current system is too subjective and “idiosyncratic.” But a grading system based on anything other than testing would be more subjective. And a system devoid of grades below “C” would idiosyncratically offer less information about students’ performance than grading has always provided.

The real complaint about traditional grading is that it’s too objective. It gives teachers less room to manipulate grades to favor students and, importantly, students of favored races/ethnicities.

Proponents of the new system point out that giving an “incomplete” rather than a “D” or “F” allows students more time to master a subject. Says one advocate, “the future is going to require less focus on time and more focus on what we can do and contribute, and the quality of our performance.”

Really? If the pace of the work world is slowing down, that’s news to me. If anything, the pace seems to be picking up.

Perhaps the most revealing line in the article comes at the very end from an assistant principal at a public school in the Oakland area:

It will be a lot of work, but it’s important we do this [change the grading system] because traditional grades benefit some kids, but they don’t help everyone.

Is it a benefit for students not to be told the truth about how well they are learning? If so, it’s a benefit that ought not be doled out.

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