Fs are rare in my 10th- and 12th-grade public-school literature classes. While I would like for Ds to be rare, too, 18 percent of my students earned one by the end of the spring semester.
Unlike the few who got Fs, they received the same amount of credit on their transcripts as did anyone with an A, B, or C. They just probably won’t be going to a selective college (at least any time soon). In California, where I teach, state universities from Berkeley to Chico State don’t admit any student who got a D in a prerequisite core class, like algebra. And most reputable private colleges across the country set similar expectations.
As educators, politicians, pundits, and parents debate the logic of Common Core testing and deliberate how to best hold teachers accountable, inspire students, and improve educational opportunities for American kids, it seems counterintuitive that what my former coworker calls “sub-mediocrity” can lead to a diploma. The bulk of my 12th-graders passed the California High School Exit Exam as 10th-graders. (Every public-school student in the state must pass the exam in order to receive a diploma.) Still, a healthy minority of those seniors left high school a few weeks ago with abysmal GPAs—largely because of Ds—and will probably soon enter the slow-moving currents of part-time community-college attendance. Community college is a fine continuing-education option for people who are committed to their studies, but too many students let it become the only one by racking up Ds.
Although I dislike reducing student performance to simple letters and numbers, studies show that grades are a better indicator of college success than is test performance. Unfortunately, when students know that Ds will earn a diploma as readily as As will, some game the system. If pride, intellectual curiosity, social pressure, and vigilant parents do not compel them to do otherwise, some students only work to avoid getting Fs. These students appear indifferent toward class discussion and content. Those habits often follow them after they leave high school. In my correspondence with former students who have already graduated, I have observed that the kids who became accustomed to Ds in high school often struggle if and when they’re in college because they never developed the academic and personal skills necessary to succeed there. Without the oversight of teachers, counselors, and parents that they may have had in high school, they are freer to fall—and to lose what scant interest they may have once held.
Eliminating Ds might reduce the behavior that tends to cause them. Some schools and districts in the country have already done so, including a New Jersey school district that banned them in 2010. I once worked at a Los Angeles charter school that did away with Ds to increase college acceptances. At this school, students “failed” a class when they scored below 62.5 percent—a cut-off number derived from a five-point grading scale that was based on state standardized tests. Yet very few scored below that threshold. The percentage distinguishing a C- from the abyss of failure below was significantly smaller than it had been before, but it was the midway point between “Basic” and “Proficient” on rubrics using that five-point scale. At the end of the school’s first year without Ds, over 90 percent of the senior class accepted invitations to attend four-year universities, and most students had at least entertained the option.