Sunday, November 14, 2010

Should We Stop Giving Students F's?

In the movie Apollo 13, when Ed Harris's character (Flight Director Gene Kranz) announces "Failure is not an option," he is referring to the fact that the team could not even consider the possibility that the astronauts stranded in a broken spacecraft would not return to Earth safely.  But when West Potomac High School principal Clifford Hardison says it, he is talking about the fact that his school has dropped the use of the F grade in classes.  Rather, students who have not performed up to minimal expectations will be given an I for Incomplete, and will be given additional time to do the work necessary for a passing score.

Needless to say, this has been a very controversial move, both within the school itself and among the educational community.  Proponents argue that what we should really care about is that students' achieve mastery, not how long it takes them to do so.  Otherwise, they continue, students receiving F grades simply drop any attempt to understand that subject matter....and, all too often, end up dropping out of school all together.  Opponents say that removing the F grade takes away one of the few tools in the teacher's arsenal as teachers attempt to persuade reluctant learners that they need to apply themselves and do the work necessary to cover the subject matter and skills required to be productive in "the real world."  And the "good students"--the ones who have performed to expectations, who turned in all their assignments on time and studied to get good grades on their tests--worry that the fact that their high school gives out I's (to be replaced by the appropriate grade once all assignments and tests have been passed) will diminish the value of the high grades they achieved within the normal timeframe of the class.

It is particularly interesting to consider from a homeschooling perspective.  Most of the homeschoolers I know do minimal or no grading until students get into high school level classes, which need to be turned into some kind of transcript for college admission or job applications.  In my experience, the prevailing thought among area homeschoolers is that those transcripts need to include grades, because that is what colleges or employers expect.  But there is a contingent that argues that even high school level work should not be graded (including one of my favorite writers on educational reform, Alfie Kohn).  But even among those who are grading their students, many actually take the same approach as West Potomac.  That is, if their children don't get through all the material in a subject the parent's have planned for the year, they don't usually get an F; they continue to work on it in the next academic year, and it is listed as a course in the year in which they complete the work, not the year they began it.

I haven't decided which way we will go when my son gets to the transcript years.  But what about you?  Do you think giving F's is a good idea or a bad idea?


  1. Among several dozen roles grades currently play, none are typically relevant to what I do. The biggest issue with grade's number one role as evaluation is the huge conflict of interests it produces when teachers perform it.

    When I ask people to do tasks, there are criteria for what it means for the task to be done. The task can be finished according to the criteria, canceled, or postponed. I don't see a place for grades within this scheme of things.

    People who complain of peers getting "incomplete" instead of an F have a special place in Hell reserved for them.

  2. Alfie Kohn talks about his struggles with grades when he was teaching high school in a system that required grades. So while he had to assign a final grade for performance over the term, he would only comment on or give suggestions for improvements on the individual pieces of work. But even Alfie Kohn faults himself (in retrospect) for the fact that he made both the criteria for evaluation and the final scores unilaterally, rather than getting the students themselves involved in deciding what is "excellence" versus "minimal expectation" or whatever on specific projects or disciplines.

    This is something I've been trying to work with my own son to do lately, but it hasn't gone particularly successfully so far. Transforming the evaluation process is hard, even for educational innovators like Kohn or for people like me who have the freedom to experiment with different techniques.

  3. It is very hard to reach consensus on what "success" means for a NOVEL task. And I wonder if M simply does not record some types of recurring tasks in memory enough to form criteria for them. At least, attempts to ask about "the last time" usually don't bring up many/any recollections. Documentation to the rescue?

  4. That is part of it, but part of it is that we have such different value systems. For example, one of my son's highest values is humor. So if, say, we are discussing a report he is doing for History coop, he values humor more than he does accuracy. For me, when you are talking about history, putting in things that didn't happen for comedic purposes is writing an untruth, which I don't think belongs in a history report. But he thinks it is more important thing to make his peers laugh than to merely report facts that he thinks they won't remember anyway.

    So most times, if we can't come to consensus, I'll resume my teacher/authoritarian hat and say we're doing it by my guidelines, not his (although I accept his point of view certainly has some validity). So I've found it hard--so far--to make my theories about having cooperative evaluation measures mesh with things like the expectations out there in the "real world," like coops with other children and standardized tests and eventually college admissions.


    I just asked Scott Laidlaw about this - he's at the global ed conference. He mentioned "discussion circles" he holds with kids about expectations.

    I think it comes down to pausing and reflecting. Is doing this or that a good idea? It's like counting rows in a pinecone. Slowing way down.

    I have the opposite problem with K - she's reluctant to try new things because she thinks of too many reasons it can turn out badly. Or she spends forever at tasks. We are doing disinhibiting exercises.

  6. Well, time is exactly the issue. Sometimes these discussions about expectations drag on and on and on...and, especially when it is something like an assignment for a coop that is due by a particular time that is fast approaching, and we've already spent more time arguing over the expectations than we will spend on the project itself...well, that's when my authoritarian side comes up, says we can't spend any more time on this discussion, and we're just doing it my way because--oh yes, the dreaded--"I'm the parent, that's why." Sigh.