Dumbed Down and Out in High School

Some San Jose area teachers are dumping the D as a passing grade. They say students who are doing the minimum to get by will just have to work a little harder. California's public universities won't accept anything below C- on an academic transcript. The San Jose Mercury News reports:

"Where else in the world does anyone accept 'D work' but in public schools?'' says Pete Murchison, principal at Fremont's Irvington High School, which has done away with D's altogether.

...Still, some wonder whether the new grading scheme demands too much from students who aren't shooting for spots at Stanford or even Cal State-Stanislaus.

"I'd rather go to a junior college,'' said Alex Johnson, a junior at Mountain View High who is eyeing Foothill or De Anza community colleges. He says it's unfair that some teachers at his school are widening the range for an F. His dad isn't thrilled either.

"D's are the only thing keeping him from getting F's,'' Alex's dad, Doug Johnson, said. "He's an incredibly bright kid, but he couldn't care less about school.''

That's precisely the problem, say teachers who don't want to pass students who scrawl their names and some answers on exams but still don't grasp much of the material.

The risk of eliminating the D is that teachers will stretch the C- to help kids squeak by. But if teachers hang tough, students will learn to set their sights higher.

Principal Murchison said young people need to learn that sub-standard work is not OK in the real world.

"I'm fixing my kitchen right now,'' Murchison said. "I'm not going to pay a guy $5,000 for 'D work'.''

Oh, but what if he's an incredibly talented workman who does lousy work because he just couldn't care less? You mean that's not good enough?

Thanks for the F

Reform K12 has a nice post about a teacher who got a thank you from a parent. The teacher writes:

See, I'd given her daughter an F for the third quarter, and her mother couldn't be more tickled.

What this failing grade had done was give her daughter a well-needed kick in the pants. She'd done a mediocre performance the first two quarters, but this failing third quarter grade gave her the sobering thought that she might fail the entire course.

The student started to show up every day and do the work.

Kill the Messenger

Instead of requiring high school students to pass a graduation exam, Delaware decided to award three levels of diplomas: basic, standard and distinguished. The levels are based on students' performance on state reading, math and writing tests given in 10th grade. Some 52 percent of students are in line for only a basic diploma, 40 percent for standard and only 8 percent for distinguished.

First, honor roll students with mediocre scores complained they have to settle for standard diplomas. Now there's a furor over the achievement gap: 76 percent of blacks and 70 percent of Hispanics are likely to get only a basic diploma, "resegregating" the graduating class. By contrast, 43 percent of whites and 30 percent of Asians are expected to be basic graduates.

The Legislature is likely to delay the three-tiered plan, killing the messenger. If they wait until students of all races and family backgrounds earn the same test scores, they will wait a long time.

From the News-Journal:

"Eventually, with a good study, they will find it furthers the aura of separation of these kids when, ultimately, you want them to feel that they are just as good as their counterparts," said Hector Figueroa, education director for the Urban League.

They're not just as good, of course. Not in reading, writing and math.

Robert Andrzejewski, head of the Red Clay school district, said the system will not motivate students as legislators insisted it would.

"One of the worst things you can do to kids with low self-esteem, who are often of low-income anyway, is show them failure," he said. "So many of those students have experienced failure in their lives and there comes a point when they decide they have to save face for themselves, and, unfortunately, that may mean they drop out."

Many states are denying a diploma to students who fail to meet minimum standards on a graduation exam. Delaware's plan gives everyone a diploma, regardless of skills, but rewards those who've done average or above-average work with a silver or gold sticker. I don't think that's unfair to basic grads. Their problem is not the color of the sticker on their diploma. It's the fact that they lack the skills — indeed they lack the basic skills — they'll need to pass a college class or qualify for an apprenticeship or fill out a job application properly.

Dave Huber, a Delaware teacher, has more.

Exit exams don't cause early exits. Graduation exams don't increase the drop-out rate, according to a study by Jay Greene of the Manhattan Institute. The study also shows that neither reducing class size nor increasing funding leads to higher graduation rates. In a New York Sun column on New York's Regents exams, Greene explains that many of the students who fail the exit exams are failing their classes too. They’re not on track to graduate. The exams tend to measure ninth or tenth grade proficiency, and students have many chances to take the test before the end of 12th grade.

Given so many tries, eventually most students who are able to complete the other requirements to graduate also pass the exit exam, even if only by chance.

...Exit exams force schools to focus their time and resources on low-achieving students they previously ignored. This improved use of resources causes some students who otherwise would have dropped out to earn their diplomas The number of students helped by exit exams appears to balance the number who fail to graduate because they can't pass, Greene writes.


Richard Salsberry of Wellsville, Ohio writes:

As an eighth grade math teacher, I have students who have gone through our elementary schools without having to know their basic facts. They are all addicted to calculators. I have been giving my students timed tests recently to try to make them aware of their very poor skills. Many of my students will still miss 30 or more basic calculations. They simply do not have any number sense at all. I often get answers that are so far off base, and when I inquire why, I get the same response: "That is what the calculator said."  I rarely use calculators in my classroom. These students will do their work often at home with calculators. They don't even recognize that their answers are so far off base that it has to be wrong.  

Robyn Orchard writes:

As an eighth grade English teacher, I am dismayed by many things in education, but I cannot share your condemnation of calculators. Computation is just one facet of mathematics; problem-solving and reasoning are higher-level skills. Yes, calculators should be banned from computation tests, but if problem-solving is actually being assessed, a mistake in computation would mask a student’s real ability to solve a problem.

Kelly Knapp of Marfa, Texas writes:

I argued with more than one teacher about not wanting my children (I have six) to use calculators until they began algebra. The argument on the school’s side was always the same: The calculators saved time. I had little choice but to home school my youngest four, because the schools actually began requiring calculators. 

Knowing how to push buttons on a machine hardly enables a child to know how to calculate with his mind. Even monkeys can be taught to push buttons in sequence. 

Frankly, I was saddened to see that the students in the NAEP study weren't even getting great scores with the calculators. This shows that detail is not emphasized either, because students can't even hit the correct buttons.

Ralph Givens of Cedaredge, Colo., writes: (search

I spent most of my 40-year career in an industrial technical position where I supervised, mentored and evaluated recent college graduates. Many times I found that young engineers from "good" schools were helpless without their programmable calculators. They simply did not understand the principles involved in the calculations that their little TI and HP crutches did for them. To me, that meant that they could not think in a constructive manner about difficult problems which could not be solved by rote use of the little machines. Many were fired before the end of their probationary periods.

I attended a high school system which performed a triage at the end of grade eight. Students were divided into academic (college capable), general, and vocational groups. There was no stigma attached to not being in the academic group. The results were graduates who were prepared for life as well as their inherent abilities allowed. Our so-called educators forget that half of the population is on the dull side of the "normal" point in the intellectual ability curve. Both high school and college classes are "dumbed down" when they try to make one size fit all.

My high school would not allow teachers' college graduates to teach the academic group. The academic faculty was drawn from liberal arts graduates from recognized universities. Many had master’s degrees and some were working for a Ph.D while teaching.

Jerry Mitchell of Clinton, Tenn., writes:

I am 36. Three years ago, I went back to school part-time at a local community college so I can get a better job and make more money for my family. I am about 15 years older then the average college student, but I make much higher grades. The reason I make higher grades is simple: I study more than the average student and I take harder courses. It doesn't take students very long to learn what are the easy courses, who are the easy professors and what is the easiest major. 

Many college students hang on to their calculators much as a young child hangs on to a blanket for security.  In my first calculus test, when the professor wouldn't let calculators used, five of 25 students walked out and 10 other students never came back to class. We ended up with nine students at the end of the semester. I have seen the same problem in chemistry, physics and other courses. When courses get hard, most students just drop instead of studying harder.

Laurie Sansbury, Jr. writes:

I attended college 20 years ago, but failed to graduate. Now, at 40, I am again taking classes and have a 4.0 average. The major difference I see is that the students have a poor attitude and the classes are much easier.

I can maintain a full class schedule, work a full-time job and have plenty of study time — because I no longer need to study hard. The down side is that I don't learn nearly as much. Actually, I tend to do a lot more studying than is necessary to achieve A's; I intend to enter medical school shortly, and I'm sure it will benefit me then.

Lynn B. Grant writes:

I spent 28 years in the Air Force as a fighter pilot, and then as a training systems designer/teacher for aircraft maintenance. I had access to the educational assessments of recruits. I found an ever declining educational ability in math, reading comprehension, grammar and the ability to write. We finally had to write the training material, to be given to both high school and college graduates, at the fifth grade reading level.

In the late ‘80s and through the ‘90s, after I had retired from the military, I was a maintenance instructor, and later an aircraft maintenance examiner, for the FAA at a small school in South Carolina. All the students had a valid high school diploma. Very few could do any simple math by hand and only a few more could do any better using a calculator! Also they could not understand and comprehend what many of the textbooks or the maintenance manuals were saying.

John Emerson writes:

I am a retired geology professor. I taught in my midwestern university for 30 years, and still teach the occasional introductory course. I was a undergraduate and graduate student from the mid-fifties to the mid-sixties. Standards were high then. There has been a steady deterioration since. The schools of today teach self-esteem without basis, and allow people to graduate with poor communications and writing skills. In the old days people without adequate skills for college level work went to a community college first to boost their preparation level.

Joanne Jacobs writes about education and other issues at JoanneJacobs.com. She’s writing a book, Ride the Carrot Salad, about a start-up charter high school in San Jose.

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