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What Does a "D" Mean Anyway?

The New York Times ran a story this weekend about the school district in Mount Olive, a middle-class enclave in north Jersey, which has decided to do away with the "D" letter grade in its schools. The goal: to prod students at the bottom of the curve to get their acts together and try harder.

The question is: Will it? Or will teachers just bump students that would have nearly failed (or maybe barely failed) a course up to a C-, as if the bin for Ds just wasn't there?

"No one wants to hire a D-anything, so why would we have D-students and give them credit for it?" Mount Olive superintendent Larrie Reynolds tells the Times. But, in all honesty, there isn't a lot of competition for C- students either.

I'm not sure I see the significance of the move, other than that students can't eek by with a 65 on a test. They now need a 70. Getting a 70 on a test, however—whereas it may demonstrate that a student knows 70 percent of the material being covered—doesn't say anything about whether a student's mastery of a subject is above average or not. And that may be a more telling statistic than any letter grade.

Inspired by the Times article, Slate ran an "Explainer" on the origins of the letter grade system. According to the piece, "Teachers and administrators needed an efficient, standardized system for testing and evaluating large numbers of students."

Over at AOL's Parent Dish blog, Honey Berk argues that the getting rid of the D heaps more pressure onto our already over-scheduled and over-stressed students:

Sure, there will always be Spicoli-type slackers and stoners who do just enough to skate by. But for every one of those purposeful underachievers, there are kids who are truly doing their best. Kids who have after-school jobs or take care of younger siblings. Kids whose parents simply don't have the resources to send them to expensive tutoring centers. Kids who will be successful novelists even if they get a D in math, or revolutionize physics even if they're thought to be slow language learners.


By this reckoning, the meaning of some Ds in a math class means "future liberal arts student" and Ds in a humanities-related class means "future computer programmer." I don't buy it. I'd hazard a guess that the D is more often not a an aberration report card, but probably more indicative of systemic lack of effort.

It seems to me that the big effect this move will have is one fewer box on a report card.

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