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No-D Policy Gains Wider Acceptance

A growing number of schools and districts are requiring a C average as the minimum to pass. Not all educators think it's a good idea.

June 23, 2003|Jia-Rui Chong | Times Staff Writer

EL CAJON, Calif. — Maria Chavez had drawn zeros for blowing off her first two assignments in English, and in a normal year that would have been no problem.

Without much strain, the El Cajon Valley High School senior could have hoisted her F average to a D, the minimum passing grade. "I was, like, the kind of student who would settle for a D," she said.

This year, her school wouldn't let her. In a pilot program that began in January, El Cajon's English department joined a handful of schools and districts across the country in dropping the D from grade books.

Mindful of meeting new state standards in education, instructors at El Cajon and elsewhere have decided that the barely passing grade, the salvation of the lousy or lazy student, is no mark of achievement -- and ought not to be a mark at all.

Students must either demonstrate satisfactory performance by earning a C or above, or they flunk.

Teachers hope that students will respond as Chavez has -- by getting busy. In the three months after her lapse, she turned in every homework assignment.

"I can't fail if I want to graduate," Chavez said one morning recently as she completed a worksheet for the English class. "Now I have a B-minus and I'm going to keep it."

Earlier this month, she secured her B-minus in English and her diploma.

Although no one keeps comprehensive statistics on grading practices, at least a dozen secondary schools in Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas have ditched the D in the last decade.

In California, it has been dropped in high schools in Rocklin, San Diego and Temecula.

And this school year, El Cajon's English department, along with high schools in Yucaipa and in Frederick County, Md., joined their ranks.

A Los Angeles Unified School District committee is considering grading reforms, including dropping the D, by 2004-05.

Proponents of D-free report cards argue that if the passing grade is set at C, that's where many students will aim their efforts.

"High school students are very sophisticated: They know what they can get away with," said Henry Bohlander, instructional director for high schools in Frederick County, where Ds were banned last fall.

Bohlander thinks that aiming for Ds is counterproductive. "In the work world, a day of D work would get you fired," he said.

Many colleges, as well, do not recognize the D as a passing grade among high school applicants. And a D average will get a high school athlete kicked off a team.

"But we're willing to give a high school diploma to someone with a D average," said Phil Spears, director of standards and assessment for the California Department of Education. "This makes no sense."

Not everyone agrees. Some educators and parents say the D is needed to reward the student who achieves little over the student who achieves nothing.

"If you get an F, then you're not performing at all and not doing anything," said Kendra Nichols, an assistant principal at Compton High School. "A D means you're not working to standards yet, but you may be trying to do the work."

Anthony Wager considered his stepson, a ninth-grader at El Cajon, a case in point.

"He's trying his best ... and he can only attain a D-plus" in English, Wager said several weeks ago. "Now that they're failing him, it only frustrates him."

The boy, Anthony Vazquez, said he cared about school but lacked the time to finish homework assignments and projects.

"When I get home, I have to clean up the house, take care of my brother or cook dinner," the 14-year-old said. "I get mad that I can't finish [assignments] on time. I just feel I'm going to fail."

Vazquez ended the year with a C-minus. English teacher Barbara Dagman said the no-D policy drove him to work harder.

"I'd say it motivated him because he saw things in black and white, either I pass or I fail."

In at least two cases in the last four years, opposition from parents and guidance counselors caused the D to be reinstated.

Districts in Hernando County, Fla., and Edmund, Okla., reversed their bans after critics complained that students' grade-point averages were unfairly lowered because teachers issued Fs instead of Ds. That made it harder for students to meet minimum GPAs to play sports, transfer to another district or obtain scholarships and admission to college.

Discouraged students may choose to abandon education altogether, said Thomas Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky who served as a consultant to Frederick County.

Before dropping the D, schools need to invest in tutoring programs, longer office hours for instructors and teacher-training programs to keep struggling students from failing, education experts said.

Such programs cost money, which may explain why Ds appear to be dropped more often in affluent school districts, Guskey said.

Some educators are wary of banning Ds for fear of prompting soft-hearted teachers to hand out undeserved Cs.

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