High School Opts to Drop Fs From Transcripts, Some Say That's a Serious Fail

Filed under: In The News, Education: Teens

Should kids be given the chance to master course work instead of failing outright? Credit: Corbis

You may not like to see your children fail, but would you go so far to protect them as to eliminate the word "fail" from their vocabularies?

Essentially, that's what West Potomac High School, in Alexandria, Va., is doing by banishing the F grade from transcripts in most cases, the Washington Post reports.

Instead of giving students failing grades, West Potomac has substituted a grade of "I" for incomplete, which means students still owe their teachers course work. Students will only get an F if they fail to complete their assignments and learn the required content in the months to come, according to the newspaper.

The goal of this change is to encourage students to continue working toward mastering material rather than accepting a failing grade and moving on, the Post reports, adding that this is one of the ways schools across the country have been trying to improve grading methods -- especially with regard to low-performing students.

In August, the school district in Mount Olive, N.J., banned the D grade in an effort to motivate students to work harder to achieve a C. The move prompted a considerable amount of debate in educational circles and the media; some considered it a great motivational tactic for kids who weren't putting in the work, while others thought it would serve only to further stress out kids who might not be capable of performing at a higher level.

Other schools in the Washington, D.C., area have made similar changes. T.C. Williams High School in Alexandria, Va., now allows incomplete grades to be given as placeholders, but with fixed time limits for completing the work. Montgomery County schools now score Fs as no lower than 50 percent when calculating grade point averages, instead of zero. And in Prince William County, schools have made it easier to retake tests and they award fewer outright zeroes, the Post reports.

However, the Post notes that few schools have gone as far as West Potomac.

"It's a huge paradigm shift," principal Clifford Hardison tells the newspaper, adding that he counted nearly 2,000 Fs when year-end grades were tallied last June at West Potomac, with a large group of teens failing more than one course.

Critics of the new strategy fear that by reducing the possibility of outright failure, teachers will have less leverage over poorly-performing students. They also believe it gives kids unrealistic expectations about the adult world they will soon join.

Mary Mathewson, a West Potomac English teacher, tells the Post the change takes away one of the very few tools teachers have to get kids to learn. She says the possibly of failing is a motivator for students, and thinks kids will now be under the impression that "they can do it whenever they want to, and it's not that big of a deal."

Mathewson reports that half of the first quarter grades for two 10th grade English classes were incompletes.

"I don't believe it's an extra chance," she says. "It's an out. The root problem is motivation. The root problem is not that we're not teaching them."

Mickey Mulgrew, Prince William's associate superintendent for high schools, tells the Post the growing belief is: "Who cares if you learned it on Monday or Tuesday, as long as you learned it? Once they demonstrate mastery, you give them credit for what they know."

Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent for instructional services in Fairfax County, Va., tells the Post a small group of entrepreneurial principals are trying new approaches, using standards-based ideas about the importance of learning content.

"If we really want students to know and do the work, why would we give them an F and move on?" Noonan tells the Post. " ... I think the students who are struggling should not be penalized for not learning at the same rate as their peers."

At West Potomac, which has an enrollment of 2,200, learning will now trump grading and the emphasis will be on what students know. To help students succeed, teachers will be on duty more afternoons and Saturdays and they will also act as mentors. Finally, if students fail to complete necessary work, they may have to attend a last-chance summer session, the Post reports.

But many parents and students are concerned about fairness, as conscientious students who keep up with the work and study hard could ultimately get the same final grade on their transcript as one who may have skipped class and/or failed a test multiple times.

Student Harmain Rafi, 16, tells the Post she fails to see how it "balances out" not to hold students to the same deadlines and test opportunities.

"It more or less says all the hard work I'm doing isn't going to be worth anything," she says.

Parent Carol Farquhar Bolger tells the Post fairness is an issue for kids who play by the rules.

"The question becomes: What is a grade from West Potomac going to mean now? What does an A mean now?" she says.

The school's Parent-Teacher-Student Association is studying the change, and an opposition group has formed, calling itself Real World, Real Grades.

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Start by teaching him that it is safe to do so.