When pundits deign to talk about grades in school the discussion usually begins and ends with college grade inflation, the increase in average grades earned by students over time. But a piece over at the Atlantic takes a look an interesting component of grading in high schools. It turns out that the most troublesome students are a little unexpected.

As Andrew Simmons writes:

Getting an F typically requires some combination of compulsive truancy, a keen distaste for holding a pen, and problems outside of school. An F leads to summer school or an online course, and unrepentant F students tend to drop out or head to an alternative school before long. Fs are a serious problem in education.

But they’re not, it turns out, the most serious problem students in schools, because they mostly go away and become someone else’s problem. It’s the bad students who stay who are most difficult.


D students, however, often stick around and cause another serious problem: They may pass, but they learn close to nothing along the way. Plus, they have little chance of attending a four-year college out of high school. A D student may flake on at least one major assignment a semester but breezily make up minor reading quizzes two months after they were originally administered. Maybe he shows up—but only after sauntering in 10 minutes late. Maybe he doesn’t ask for help and casually breaks appointments for tutoring. Rarely reading and occasionally despairing (with a smile) that he “can’t understand the book,” the D student probably falls behind early and catches up late. But not too late to prevent that bad grade from morphing into a worse one—and not wholeheartedly enough to get the C or B he’s likely capable of earning. This D student knows exactly what he needs to do to avoid an F before grades are due.

Part of the trouble with D students is that their barriers to success are complicated. They might be kind of lazy, and kind of unprepared, and they maybe have some sort of learning disabilities. These students are really, really hard to help.

The author, who is a teacher, explains that these students haven’t really learned anything much by the end of the school year. The difference between a D and a F is a matter of a few more classes attended and one or two more correct answers on a test, but D students earn the same credit at the end of a course as B students, even though they’re basically failing school. About 18 percent of Simmons’s students earned Ds.

What to do? Simmons suggests that the solution might be to simply stop granting academic credit for Ds. That would, he argues, probably motivate students more:

I once worked at a Los Angeles charter school that did away with Ds to increase college acceptances. At this school, students “failed” a class when they scored below 62.5 percent—a cut-off number derived from a five-point grading scale that was based on state standardized tests. Yet very few scored below that threshold. The percentage distinguishing a C- from the abyss of failure below was significantly smaller than it had been before, but it was the midway point between “Basic” and “Proficient” on rubrics using that five-point scale. At the end of the school’s first year without Ds, over 90 percent of the senior class accepted invitations to attend four-year universities.

It’s not exactly an airtight argument, since charter schools are self-selecting and tend to attract relatively motivated students in the first place, but a move in this direction would probably have a positive impact on student achievement. My own (admittedly private) high school didn’t grant academic credit for anything below an 80, and I assure you even the “low performing” students still learned a great deal in their classes.

So why don’t more schools want to implement something like this? Well, the reason is pretty simple. As Simmons points out, the accountability based on a lot of standardized tests that we’ve now got throughout American high schools means that huge problems ensue, from the perspectives of both public relations and legal sanctions, when students don’t graduate. And no credits for Ds would mean lower graduation rates. It really makes a whole lot more sense for school administrators to keep letting the D students limp along until they finally grab a diploma at the end. Sure they’ve basically been wasting everyone’s time for four years, but at least they didn’t publicly flunk. A little failure is far harder to address than a lot of almost failure.

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Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer