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What Does an F Mean?

One of my AP Statistics friends posted a link to this article to a group of fellow graders this morning to get some feedback. Here’s a summary of what one school district has done: Don’t give F’s on report cards. Instead give an I (Incomplete), and give students the chance to retake exams and/or turn in back assignments to make up the grade. This is how an I works at Messiah, except that there are requirements about why an I is given, usually related to extenuating circumstances (extended illness, death of close relative, etc.) causing a student to miss a large section of class and not be able to catch up during the normal semester. If the grades are not completed by a certain point (early in the next semester) the grade turns to an F. It looks like West Potomac is trying to do something similar, but for any student who doesn’t get the material. There would be almost no Fs on original transcripts. Here are some reactions I have to this:

  • Students do learn at different paces, so building this into the system is not inherently a bad idea.
  • Some students do get the information after the exam, as the class continues. Rewarding them for this is probably appropriate, especially at the high school level. We want to reward students who don’t give up, and come back to “get it” later.
  • I’m not sure how teachers will make this work. None of the teachers in my group of friends are constantly complaining about how much extra time they have. Most of them meet with students before or after school already to help them keep up. To give constant re-tests and tutoring on old material while trying to teach new material could be a tipping point for already overworked teachers.
  • I’m not sure what this does to personal responsibility. Will this help the students who are currently struggling? Maybe. Will it encourage capable students to slack off and procrastinate? Maybe. I don’t know how we can predict whether more students will take advantage of this to help them, or take advantage of it to their own detriment.
  • Is this a high school debate, or will it someday become a college debate? I think this is a very appropriate topic for high schools to seriously consider, and I have nothing against trying it out, if teachers buy into it. It will not succeed if teachers are set against it from the beginning. At the college level, I don’t think this is a great idea. At some point, we need to teach students that some things, even learning, must be done on a deadline. I hope that college grades mean something (don’t get me started on grade inflation). Students who miss exams, or can’t be bothered to learn the material on time deserve to receive poor grades that reflect this. I do feel bad for students who just can’t seem to pick things up at the same pace. However, we do need to teach them how to read this about themselves and apply themselves in their time outside of class to help them keep up. If they simply cannot learn at the same pace, I think it is necessary to reward those who can for their ability.

I don’t know how to balance the needs of the different students perfectly, but I do know that we need to think about how to help the weaker students without unintentionally punishing the stronger students in the process. I’d love to read any comments you have on here. Maybe I’ll share any really thought provoking responses with my group to get their reaction to it.

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