Teaching & Learning Institute / Dropping the "D" Grade

08.05.10 | Cecil Van Houten

Dr. Kerr and Cecil discuss the recent decisions by some school districts to raise educational standards by dropping the "D" letter grade to encourage better student performance.

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on 08.05.10 JAMiller commented

I agree with Dr. Kerr that there is a need for higher standards; however, dropping the D-Grade does not mean that schools are moving toward higher expectations. Rather, it is possible that schools are lowering
Dr. Kerr says that "a C [grade] would probably be . . . a 65 or a 70." He also concedes that we do not know if the D grade was under a 65 or not. Here is the problem.

In most grading schemes, a D grade is a 65-69; a C grade is a 70-79; a B grade is a 80-89; an A grade is a 90-100. There are minor variations based on institutional standards (e.g., some use an 8 point scale, so an A grade may require a 92 or greater; a B grade a 84 or higher; a C grade a 76 or higher; 75 and under a D grade) but there is no evidence that any institution gives a D grade to represent less than a 65.

The consequence of the elimination of a D grade is not a higher standard which forces students to score higher to attain a passing grade, but it instead expands the range of student achievement represented by each letter grade. Consequently, students appear to attain better proficiency than is true in reality. For example, under the old grading scheme, a student who earns a 67 in a class would have received a D grade. Under the new system, that same student with a 67 now receives a C grade. The student appears to achieve a higher proficiency under the new system than under the old system.

The elimination of a D grade also has the effect of expanding the number of students who are considered to have attained the same level of achievement, thereby reducing the ability to distinguish the level of student achievement. Under the old system, four letter grades were assigned across a range of grades from 65-100. Now only three are assigned. Let's take, for example, four students who receive grades of 68, 78, 88, and 98. Under the old system, the letter grades might be assigned as follows:

68 = D
78 = C
88 = B
98 = A

Under the new system the letter grades might be assigned as follows:

68 = C
78 = B
88 = A
98 = A

So now, an A may be achieved by someone who before would have been assigned a B; a B would be achieved by someone who would have been assigned a C; and a C would be assigned to someone who would have been assigned a D. And what about those students who achieved an A under the old system? They are penalized. Those students who excel in a subject are joined by those who are merely average or slightly above average.

The net effect is that we are bolstering the appearance of academic achievement and proficiency without any corresponding change in achievement and proficiency. Rather than dropping the D grade, it would be better to just use a numeric grade. This would at least provide some semblance of a standard against which all students may be measured and by which those students who struggle in a subject might be identified and helped and those students who excel in a subject might be recognized and honored.

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