D gets passing mark from educators

Experiment with removal of below-average grade may be coming to end

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 to 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's supervisor of English, he came across 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, eventually was disproved.

"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 comes as Frederick County prepares to implement a new 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 study.

But in Carroll, where the D-less grading scale made its Maryland debut at North Carroll High in the fall of 1994 and has continued in some classes since, 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 actually have mastered the material.

"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 the work, even with a second try.

A breakdown of last year's final grades show that 6.2 percent of North Carroll students 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. Data for earlier 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.

But the county's 15 middle and high school principals, when polled by administrators, resoundingly asked Ecker to leave the D intact - with perhaps the exception for foreign languages and math.

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