No More Ds

Students Must Earn A C Or Fail

North Carroll Courses Seek To Lift Standards

April 21, 1997|By Anne Haddad | Anne Haddad,SUN STAFF

Teachers at North Carroll High School began noticing that their D students had learned one thing very well -- how to do the least work for a passing grade.

Their disarmingly simple solution: eliminate the Ds and force students to earn at least a C or flunk.

Three years later, the 1,300-student high school is quietly setting a precedent. National experts know of no other school that has excised Ds from the grade scale and given Fs in their place, but they're intrigued.

With little fanfare, North Carroll took a direct approach to what public schools all over the country are trying to do -- raise standards. All it took was a waiver from the local school board. A course is no Ds if all the staff members who teach it agree to the policy. The teachers also have to give students multiple chances to bring up grades with after-school clinics and retesting.

Sophomore April Fout wishes she had accepted her geometry teacher's offer of help. She got an F for D work in her weakest subject.

"It's my own fault," she said. "That's why I'm not bitter. I was watching `Seinfeld' instead of doing my homework."

Freshman Justin Utz comes to the after-school math clinic about twice a week to bring up an F he got last quarter in pre-algebra.

"I think a D is just like an F, except it's passing," said Justin. "It tells you that you probably have more of a chance to fail than pass."

Justin, a boy who needs help with math, sounds a lot like a man who's an expert at teaching.

"If you get a D, how different is that from failure?" said Francis "Skip" Fennell, chairman of the education department at Western Maryland College. "A D is a kind of negative in-between. D connotes `poor.' Are we going to allow `poor' to continue? I think it's a wonderful debate."

Some educators are uncomfortable with excising a grade from the scale.

"D work doesn't cut it, and nobody wishes for their kids to do D work," said Susan M. Brookhart, an expert on grading and an associate professor of education at Duquesne University in Pittsburgh. "But I would prefer to see them create a totally new scale instead of an incomplete one."

Philosophically, a new scale is emerging, said Gregory Eckles, director of secondary schools for Carroll County. He was principal at North Carroll when the no-D pilot program began.

The traditional letter-grade scale is based on a bell curve that assumes there will be students who are average, those who are just above or below average, and those who fail or excel.

"If you're educating to separate students who can achieve and students who can't, then the D makes sense," Eckles said. "But if your educational philosophy is to get students to achieve at a satisfactory or better level, then the D doesn't make sense."

James McPartland, director of the education research center at the Johns Hopkins University, said grades should be thought of as "the salary of school, the pay kids get." Eliminating the D is like saying you don't get paid until you complete the job adequately.

McPartland praised the no-Ds policy, but said it might not be suited to every school. In some Baltimore high schools, there are students who are starting freshman year so far behind, that to apply such a policy would be laying a path for them to drop out, he said.

McPartland is starting a grading and motivation experiment at Patterson High School in the city. Students who are far behind will be given a grade which is two-thirds achievement, and one-third effort.

Around the country, public schools are raising standards. Florida students still can earn a D, but the grade is practically worthless: Members of the class of 2000 will need at least a C average to graduate from most high schools in that state.

In Fairfax County, Va., middle schools have stopped giving any grades below C, allowing students to retake tests until they achieve a passing grade.

"Everybody wants to raise the bar, but they don't always take the time to teach the kid to jump higher," said Barry Gelsinger, the director of curriculum for Carroll schools and the one who first suggested eliminating Ds.

North Carroll teachers said they already offered students after-school help. But now that the stakes are higher, more students show up.

The idea for the no-D classes began with Gelsinger about four years ago when he was supervisor of English for the county.

"It came about from some research I read that said we could raise standards if we eliminate that area that says it's OK to almost fail," Gelsinger said.

English teachers at North Carroll took the idea to colleagues in other departments. Only 10 teachers tried it the first year.

North Carroll already had a pioneer spirit -- one year earlier, it was among the first schools in the state to switch to a schedule of four 90-minute periods a day, instead of the traditional seven 45-minute periods.

Most of the other high schools in the county adopted a four-period day this year, after seeing the success at North Carroll. But none has been interested in ending Ds.

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