Are 'No-Fail' Grading Systems Hurting or Helping Students?

POSTED: Monday, April 27, 2009 - 6:16pm
UPDATED: Friday, April 13, 2012 - 8:52am

What's a kid gotta do to get an "F" these days?

At a growing number of middle schools and high schools across the country, students no longer receive failing marks when they fail. Instead, they get an "H" — for "held" — on their report cards, and they're given a chance to rectify their poor performance without tanking the entire semester.

Educators in schools from Costa Mesa, Calif., to Maynard, Mass., are also employing a policy known in school hallways as ZAP — or "Zeros Aren't Permitted" — which gives students an opportunity to finish the homework they neglected to do on time.

While administrators and teachers say the policies provide hope for underperforming students, critics say that lowering or altering education standards is not the answer. They point to case studies in Grand Rapids, Mich., where public high schools are using the "H" grading system this year and, according to reports, only 16 percent of first-semester "H" grades became passing grades in the second semester.

Click here to see schools that implement some type of no-fail policy.

Last week in Texas, state senators backed the elimination of "no-fail" grading by unanimously approving a measure that would prohibit school districts from forcing teachers to dole out minimum grades to failing pupils. The bill was introduced by Republican State Sen. Jane Nelson, who said the trend toward "no-fail" grading encourages manipulation of the education system.

"These policies are more widespread than people think," Nelson said in a statement issued Tuesday. "I was appalled to hear from teachers who are not allowed to assign failing grades to students. It is often an unwritten rule, but it is happening in many of our schools."

Nelson, a former public school teacher, said minimum grade policies reward "minimum effort" from students who "live up or down" to expectations set by educators.

But with the nation's high school dropout rate hovering around 30 percent, Sherri Johnson, director of programs for the National Parent Teacher Association, said school districts should consider any measures possible to stop low-performing students from quitting school.

"Students ought to be assessed on how they master whatever skills they're being assessed on, and one grade cannot achieve that," Johnson told FOXNews.com. "If a teacher is not teaching to different learning styles, a student is always behind the 8-ball."

Johnson said a single letter grade does not adequately address specific skills contained within a certain subject.

"What an 'F' says is that you just don't get it," Johnson said. "But what if the child gets pieces of it but they haven't mastered everything? Or perhaps that 'F' says you failed three tests but not necessarily failed the entire skill."

Some students simply don't perform well on exams, and grades typically don't reveal "what's behind" the failure, Johnson said.

With an 'H' grade rather than an 'F,' she continued, students and parents alike get another opportunity to learn the lesson plan and hold schools more accountable.

"Simply saying that an 'F' is what you get and everybody moves on does not help that young student," she said. "It takes the school off the hook in many ways."

The psychological impact of an "F" is also something to consider, according to Valerie Purdie-Vaughns, a professor of psychology at Columbia University in New York.

"'Students who are doing poorly tend to gravitate to other students who are also getting 'F's' or not doing well," she said. "You can unintentionally start to create a culture of failure. The other effect is that students really feel like they cannot recover, particularly as schools are becoming more competitive."

But Michael Petrilli, a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and a former U.S. Department of Education official, said he disagreed with the new grading policies.

"This is clearly about dumbing down expectations for our students," Petrilli told FOXNews.com. "Some of these children are just a few years away from being in the workforce, in college or even in the military, and in none of those environment will they be coddled like they are in these programs."

Petrilli said the policy also sends the wrong message to students.

"If you're getting a zero, that usually means you didn't turn in the assignment or do the job correctly," he said. "All this does is create cynicism among educators and send signals to students that the education system is not serious about achievement."

If anything, Petrilli said, overall standards at high schools across the country should be raised, not lowered.

"It does not take a lot to pass a high school course," he said. "If we have kids not meeting the standard, the answer is not to lower the standard."

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