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Does eliminating failing grades help students not fail?
Growing push to eliminate zeros to keep students in the game leaves some teachers skeptical. - photo by Eric Schulzke
If schools eliminated all test scores and all letter grades, what would be left to measure outcomes?

Last year there was widespread pushback against standardized testing, documented by the Deseret News. That reaction began with widespread opting out from tests, and culminated in the new federal education law reducing federal pressure to use standardized tests in evaluating teachers, students and schools.

Now a push is underway to eliminate or change letter grades, as well. The push comes from two directions.

One push is to encourage children to succeed by not forcing them to fall so far behind. For example, teachers may be asked not to give a zero for not turning in an assignment.

One school in Virginia has a minimum score of 53 on a 100-point scale, the Washington Post reports. The idea is to give students repeated bites at the apple until they catch up, without every pushing them too far to try.

A very different approach to abandoning letter grades is the use of skills ratings tied to competency and the Common Core.

This skills-based reporting approach has parents in the Chicago area flummoxed. The idea here is that traditional letter grades do not tell parents enough about the specific skills the child has learned and places they need to improve.

"In standards-based grading, work and study habits are usually judged separately from student achievement, and grades usually won't be letters derived by throwing together points for tests, quizzes and homework assignments," the Chicago Tribune reports. "Instead, numbers such as 1 to 4 would describe how students are meeting or working toward meeting specific standards. Or simple phrases can be used, such as 'exceeding standards' or 'progressing toward standards' on student report cards."

But parents so far really don't like the competency report cards, the Tribune reports, and many schools have backtracked under pressure.

Meanwhile, teachers in Virginia are confused about the enforced softening of grades there.

We have no problem being fair to students, Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince Georges County [in Virginia] Educators Association, told the Washington Post. But if they are not doing the work and not performing, and we give them a grade they did not earn, how does that make them college and career ready?

Educators speaking to the Post cited incidents where students gamed the new system, in one case passing the class while skipping several essay assignments.

In Virginia, the push is not just to soften grades, but also to stop teachers from including attendance or classroom behavior in grading. This approach fits with a strict interpretation of competency.

That is, if a student can perform to a certain level, it shouldn't matter whether or how they attended class. But some teachers were concerned that eliminating attendance and behavior will undermine development of soft skills needed to succeed in the workplace.

In any case, argues Julia Freedland Fisher at the Christensen Institute, any shift toward "competency" over traditional grading would need to take itself more seriously than most schools are at the moment.

"Grading reforms like those profiled in the Washington Posts article will mean little if schools fail to adopt competency-based structures to provide just-in-time supports for students who might otherwise languish on the brink of failing," Fisher argues. "This requires more than simply churning struggling students through end-of-course 'catch up' or making them take the same test over and over until they pass. Instead, classrooms must be fundamentally redesigned to fill gaps in understanding in real-time and allow students to move at a flexible pace that accords with their understanding."
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