The End of the D and F Grade: Welcome to Lake Wobegon

I must be living in Lake Wobegon, that mythical Minnesota town that my fellow Anokaian Garrison Keillor created where all the children are above average. The reason is simple, in classrooms throughout the country the D and F grade are fast disappearing in favor of those that traditional were given to superior students. That could only mean we are living in Keillor’s fantasy village. Unfortunately, this isn’t a fantasy and it didn’t happen a long time ago. The demise of the D and F grade came rather quickly. It was the outgrowth of a society empowered by the government’s legislation that no child is going to be left behind and the general hush of educators who know darn well that they better go along or suffer the wrath of sanctions. The result was that non-performing students, advocates for the importance of self-esteem, and parents desperately wanting to assure others that their child was on the honor roll bullied their way to higher grades using which ever tactic worked.

After this quixotic change the A became a grade for those students achieving above the accepted standards at a school regardless of the State standardized test scores. A B mark was the grade provided for those students who did the work and the C was a gentleman’s way of saying your work was done, but poorly. That was it. D and F grades were reserved for those students who simply did not do any work and for those whose parents would not object. These low grades were also avoided at schools where principals believed that if a student received a failing grade the teacher wasn’t doing their job. Yep, it was the teacher’s responsibility not the students or parents. The F grade also meant that the principal would have to justify that grade to his/her superiors which was never good unless the he had coached with the superintendent.

Some principals, helpless to change grades ethically, began a silent campaign to force teachers into not giving low grades. That would mean pressure for them to provide remediation for students who failed regardless of that fact that in all probability the pupil had many years of remediation. The F grade also meant the student might have to repeat a grade or worse, the student would stay at that school another year. To the rescue came social promotion and its justification that maybe the child wasn’t ready to learn or, perhaps, would have mental problems due to this “rejection and hurt their self-esteem.” After all, the government had mandated that they couldn’t be left behind anyway.

Some teachers soon realized that the only thing that that really mattered were happy parents and smiling administrators and many started gifting out A, B, C grades eager to pass their charges onto the next teacher. If that teacher was a holdout for the D and F grades he or she would get messages from parents indicating that they were the only teacher that the child was having a problem. A check of the record would confirm this, Thus only the brave and tenured stood firm waiting for the mandated standardized test to confirm their assessment. Unfortunately, the results came in the summer after the student had been promoted.

I remember talking to my mechanic whose daughter went to a private school and had about a 4.3 grade point average. Don’t ask me how that happened, but apparently in schools across the land an A is no longer the highest grade you can get. A new higher mark has been installed further cementing the death of the A, B, and C grading system. It is given to those students who take “more advanced” classes. Don’t even try to figure this out, but apparently there were so many straight A students that there had to be a new method used to increase the 4.0 so that colleges could see that these students were way about average. Of course, average was no longer a C, it had become a B. And, obviously, the A was no longer the highest grade a 5.0 or there abouts was.

So my mechanic was dismayed by the prospect that his daughter’s private school had provided an excellent education, but her SAT scores were under 1000. He complained to me about the unfairness of the tests and about the Democratic legislature that had mandated them. Honest. Never a mention of the daughter’s preparation or President Bush. The good news is that she was accepted at a church based university and so I felt safe to take my car there afterwards making sure no one had placed an Obama sticker on it.

The problem is that grade inflation produces students with high expectations and this hope is shattered when they meet with the realities of standardized testing. But hey, that’s someone else’s problem. In fact, with the declining validity of the grades, the SAT has become a more valuable tool for predicting academic success in college.

Of course, the end of D and F grades is not without its rationale. Good grades enable schools to tout their honor rolls and for some private schools to retain their students. Why would anyone send a child to a school and pay extra to have them receive failing marks? There are also teachers who feel that certain children may benefit from a higher grade as it could make the student feel better and, perhaps, get them to understand they can be successful.

The emphasis is not on learning at some schools, but the grades. When the grades are checked by administration they like to see high class averages. I have seen some of the best teachers called into a principal’s office for a meeting about low grades and I have known administrators to put pressure on teachers to change grades.

Next is the fact that teachers can face an exodus of students as parents search to make their children happy and face a less stressful class. Teachers not wanting to risk the wrath of their fellow educator who get these transfers may decided to loosen up their standards.

Finally, teachers are perhaps practicing something they learned in university. Nearly half of all grades at such universities such as Duke, Harvard, and Columbia are in the A range and the University of Illinois reports that A grades constitute more than 40 percent of all grades and outnumber C’s by almost three to one.

So rest in piece D and F grades. There just isn’t the need with so many superior students. And not just in Lake Woebegon.

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