Saturday, August 7, 2010

Mount Olive School District Abolishes the 'D'

I just read in the New York Times that Mount Olive School District in New Jersey has abolished the 'D'.

Sounds progressive. I mean, their reasoning is "who wants to pay for 'D' quality plumbing? Fly the skies with a 'D' -rated pilot? Settle for a 'D' restaurant?" Good intentioned if you ask me - they just want better for their children.

But there's a problem.

I fear that Mount Olive School District has just doomed themselves to mediocrity, if their lucky, or very likely something much worse.

Let me explain - it might not be what you think.

Let's pretend Mount Olive School District accomplishes their ultimate goal and every single one of the 389 student who had a 'D' before this abolishment 'pulled up their socks' and achieved a 'C'. What would the reaction be? Is it plausible the media would run banner headlines giving props to the teachers and students for working so hard?


Let's pretend Mount Olive School District successfully raises the bar but not one of the 389 students who had a 'D' could meet the standards and they all received an 'F'. What would the reaction be? Is it plausible Arne Duncan would run a joint press conference with the student's parents congratulating the school for maintaining such high standards?

Neither 'what if' is plausible.

But that's the problem.

If all those kids get 'Cs' instead of 'Ds', Mount Olive School District will be accused of academic inflation and lowering the bar to an unacceptable level. After all, the tougher standards movement is defined as much by the number of students who are proficient as the one's who are not proficient - in other words, raise the bar means we can only measure successful children when others are made to fail.

If all those kids get 'Fs' instead of 'Ds', Mount Olive School District will be labelled a failure and placed on a kind of academic probation. Under the Obama administration, they may be forced to close down schools; replace public schools with charters; remove the principal and half the staff; or remove the principal and transform the school. After all, look at all those 'Fs'! They've obviously failed to provide children with the necessary education to achieve an acceptable grade. (Then again teacher assigned grades play absolutely no role in assessing schools under Bush/Obama's No Child Left Behind or in Alberta, Canada for that matter- but then why is anyone worried about these grades in the first place if they're not important enough to even consider when assessing the quality of our education system?)

If these are worse case scenarios for Mount Olive School District, what's the best case scenario?

Despite their good intentions, Mount Olive School District's best case scenario involves some of those 'Ds' turning to 'Fs' while others become 'Cs'. In other words, they're best off if they fly under the radar smothered in a cloak of mediocrity while they regress closer and closer to the mean.

This is exactly why tougher standards, grading, test scores and competition don't make schools better - they simply make schools more like their mediocre neighbors.

Alfie Kohn summarizes this whole mess up nicely:

Despite its sugar-coated public-relations rhetoric, the whole standards-and-accountability movement is not about helping all children to become better learners. It is not committed to leaving no child behind. Just the opposite: it is an elaborate sorting device, separating wheat from chaff. And don’t ask what happens to the chaff.
This entire debacle might be funny if it weren't so damn sad.


  1. My first teaching job was at a school without Ds. A/B/C/NC. We couldn't even tolerate the letter "F."

  2. I've worked in admissions, and unusual grade plans like this force colleges to reevaluate what the grades mean - and admissions officers DON't appreciate that.

    This A/B/C/F grade system has been around, so it's easy to convert to a standard system. The way admissions officers scale the grades (A/B/C/F on left):

    A at Mt. Olive = A- (or ranges B+ to A)
    B at Mt. Olive = C+/B- (or ranges C to B)
    C at Mt. Olive = D/D+ (or ranges D- to C-)

    In the college admissions process, these kinds of non-standard grading systems aggravate the admissions process and hurts the kids themselves, who don't really know where they stack up. A "B" student at Mt. Olive won't know why he's not getting into a school that is made up of mainly B students, and an "A" student won't know why she's not getting into selective colleges.

    I feel bad for the Mt. Olive students planning to go to competitive colleges, because "creative" grading plans always penalize the students. The standard grading system (passing grades of D- to A) is most honest and fair to both the admissions offices and the students.

  3. The only thing tolerable about standardized grades is that they ARE standard and therefore comprehensible to us. We know where we stand. Despite my commitment to movements like inclusive language and my sensitivity to connotations, I believe we substitute reforming terminology for real reform. A rose my any other name...

  4. I think this really goes to show that the days of trying to tinker with grading to make them work have come and gone.


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