Pilot program eliminates giving D's

January 18, 1995|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,Sun Staff Writer

The notion of a D has a built-in contradiction for some Carroll County teachers.

Students still passed with a D. But by definition, it means below average, substandard.

So 10 teachers at North Carroll High School volunteered to dump the letter grade. If students don't earn at least a C, they won't get credit for those classes.

"I think it's good because that will help kids try their hardest, and usually some kids just slack off if they think they can pass," said Stephanie Spangler, a freshman whose English class is among the no-D courses.

"Actually, I've got a B," Stephanie said. When asked if the policy would affect A and B students such as herself, she said, "In middle school, I was a C-D student."

It is a pilot project for this year at North Carroll only, but merges with the outcomes-based education philosophy Carroll County schools have adopted over the past few years. The philosophy is that all students can learn, though some learn faster than others and in different styles, and that schools should set specific, high standards and see that students master them by the end of a course.

Science teacher Marti Tomko chairs the School Improvement Team at North Carroll, which developed the idea for the pilot last summer. The team includes teachers, administrators and parents.

Ms. Tomko and nine other teachers volunteered to try the concept in their classes.

"The kids are really achieving something, not getting credit for just showing up," Ms. Tomko said.

"We spend so much time on self-esteem and making kids feel good," she said. "But if we do that under false pretenses, they know. They know whether they really deserve credit to pass a course. And kids are very smart. They know how to do just enough work to get that D."

For her, the concept means more work, but she said she believes in it.

"If we turn around and say to students, 'If you do 60 percent, you're doing all right,' we're doing them a serious disservice," Ms. Tomko said.

Earning D's does nothing to prepare them for the job market or global competition, she said.

When students score below 70 percent on a test or assignment, Ms. Tomko asks them to redo the parts that need work. If it's a test, she'll give them a chance to review the work and retest them orally on the questions they missed.

"It's a lot of one-on-one work," she said. "If we weren't in the four-mod day, I don't think I could do this."

The "four-mod day" is another concept North Carroll pioneered for the county. The school has four 90-minute periods a day, instead of the traditional seven 45-minute periods. Classes last for one semester instead of one year.

When they made the change two years ago, teachers in the school who supported it said it would allow them more flexibility and time for hands-on learning. It also means that each semester, teachers have half the number of students to keep track of, and students have half the number of subjects to concentrate on.

"I'm able to put in the time, so that kids who might have gotten through with a D" can work with her and learn the material better to improve their grade, she said.

Ms. Tomko said giving students more than one chance to earn a score is crucial to this concept. They don't have to get everything right the first time, she said.

But they have to be willing to try again.

Gregory Eckles, director of curriculum and former North Carroll principal, said the purpose of the pilot is not to fail more students, but to raise standards.

The hope is that the number of F's doesn't increase, but that students who otherwise would have gotten a D will try harder, he said.

Ms. Tomko said no teacher likes to fail students, and will do the extra work to help any student earn a C or better.

"The student is ultimately responsible for the learning," Ms. Tomko said. "If they make no effort to take advantage of the opportunity to redo or get help, I can't physically pull them in."

Although this is the first formal pilot, some teachers already raise standards on their own.

Senior Michele Mapstone said that last year, in her chemistry class, teacher Virginia Fair required students to meet higher standards than the minimum 60 percent.

"For me to pass the class, I had to get an 88 [percent on an exam]," Michele said. "I did learn a lot."

The entries in the journals of Ms. Tomko's students reiterate a common theme: they don't like this new system, most of them say, but often in the same sentence they concede they are learning more and working harder.

To make the point that D's aren't acceptable in the real world, Ms. Tomko said she tries to make her courses relevant to that world.

In the classroom, the students were a little restless as Ms. Tomko handed out papers about nuclear power plants, and prepared them for a video on the topic.

The hand-out was a copy of the pros and cons of nuclear power, prepared by the League of Women Voters to educate consumers and voters on the topic.

"In your lifetime," she told them, "you're going to have to make decisions like this."

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