Restoring D grade is question for board

Educators want to keep grade 1 step above failure

Carroll County

May 08, 2002|By Jennifer McMenamin | Jennifer McMenamin,SUN STAFF

Concerned that their below-average students had mastered the skill of getting by - and little else - some North Carroll High School teachers decided in fall 1994 to eliminate the D grade and require students to earn at least a C or fail.

But more than seven years after the school received an exemption to let teachers drop the D, school administrators have recommended rolling back the clock and returning to a grading tier that includes A's, B's, C's and D's as passing grades and F's as failure.

The only exception to the proposal up for school board discussion tonight: courses such as foreign languages and math, in which students would get credit for a D, but be required to earn at least a C before progressing to the next level.

"I'm not as enamored with the concept of `no D' as being the path to student achievement as I [once] was," said Barry Gelsinger, Carroll's assistant superintendent of instruction and the official who was involved in revising North Carroll's grading policy in 1994.

While the county schools' supervisor of English, he found research in the early 1990s that suggested schools could raise standards by eliminating the grading category that accepts and awards credit for near failure.

But the research, Gelsinger said, proved wrong.

"Removing a grade does not raise rigor," he said. "It may actually create an unnecessary hurdle for kids who might otherwise be successful.

"Some kids do work to get a D. It's a nationally accepted standard for colleges, universities and public schools.

"For some kids, it is a level of achievement in some subjects. Hopefully, not all subjects, but some subjects."

The proposal to standardize grades of A through F at all Carroll middle and high schools occurs as Frederick County prepares to implement a grading policy in the fall that will require students at its eight high schools to earn at least a C or flunk.

Anne Arundel County educators recently debated dumping the D grade and will resume the discussion after additional study.

Value questioned

But in Carroll, where the D-less grading scale made its Maryland debut at North Carroll High in fall 1994 and has continued in some classes, some school administrators have questioned the value of removing a letter grade as a means to improve student achievement.

North Carroll High Principal Gary Dunkleberger is not among them. To explain why, he pulls out his wallet and removes his driver's license.

"The driver's test requires a score of 80 percent," he said. "Do we really want a driver on the roads who can answer only 60 percent of the questions right?"

Dunkleberger also said that in courses for which students must earn a grade of at least 70 percent to pass - some social studies, science and English classes - teachers offer tutoring and let students redo homework, rewrite papers and retake tests to prove they have learned the material.

Flunked test

"When I took my driver's test, I didn't pass the first time and no one would say that someone who didn't pass the driver's test [the first time] shouldn't drive for life," he added.

"The premise is pretty simple: Stuff that's important to learn is important to learn, even if you don't learn it the first time."

But county data suggest that some of Dunkleberger's students have not mastered their coursework, even with a second try.

A breakdown of last year's final grades show that a greater percentage of North Carroll students - 6.2 percent - received failing grades compared with 5.9 percent at Francis Scott Key High, 5.1 percent at Westminster High, 4.8 percent at South Carroll High and 2.5 percent at Liberty High.

Debate returns

Data for prior years were not available.

"The promise of a no-D policy was that it could decrease the number of kids who fail," Gelsinger, the assistant superintendent, said.

"It would move kids toward working to achieve the higher grade. Unfortunately, that's not what the data is showing us."

The D debate resurfaced in Carroll at last month's school board meeting when member C. Scott Stone mentioned Frederick County's decision to eliminate the D grade and asked Carroll's interim superintendent, Charles I. Ecker, to look into doing the same.

The matter appeared to be an open-and-shut issue, with the school board agreeing that schools should not award credit for coursework in the 60 percent to 69 percent range.

But when administrators polled the county's 15 middle and high school principals, they resoundingly asked Ecker to leave the D intact - with perhaps one exception.

"There is some legitimate concern that in carefully sequenced courses, like math and foreign languages ... a D is not a substantial enough demonstration of achievement to move on to the next level," Gelsinger said.

"We know that if we allow a student to progress to the next level in a sequenced course with a D, we're setting that student up for failure."

Assure consistency

For Gelsinger, returning the D grade to North Carroll is an issue of ensuring consistency across the county.

"Let's say a kid gets a 69 percent in a class that does not use a D and fails the course and doesn't get a diploma because of it," he said.

"A kid at another school may have gotten a 61 percent but gets a diploma and graduates. That's a concern to me."

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