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Voices: Pass Or Fail?

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Theory has it that students who take challenging courses and fail learn more than students who pass remedial classes. Consequently, high schools are now purging from the curriculum low-level courses that have always satisfied high school graduation requirements but failed to meet college-entrance requirements. Many teachers of math, science, foreign language, and other fields are seeing their subject-area offerings pared to include only college-prep courses. The goal is to expose all students to a rigorous curriculum that will ready them for college. It's a noble objective. But unfortunately, many students are being placed in classes for which they are not prepared.

These days, students fall into three basic categories: college-bound youngsters who can easily handle the tougher course material; those who find the curriculum a real struggle but are willing to try; and those who make little effort and get by with D's or simply accept F's.

Although challenging all freshmen, sophomores, and juniors might push some to try harder and accomplish more, seniors present a sticky problem. There is no next year for those who fail. Should we maintain our high college-level standards for everyone, or should we dumb-down the curriculum and reduce expectations and the workload to make sure everyone passes? The public and our administrators expect the impossible: They want high standards, and they want everyone to pass--no F's. Teachers are trapped.

I teach a college-prep journalism course. Most of my students are seniors. If I stick to my guns and maintain high standards, my grade book at year's end will show rows of zeroes for those students who rarely do their homework or complete assignments; that's 40 percent of this semester's seniors. Many others will have a line of D's after their names. A few who brought good work habits and skills to my classroom will have earned A's, B's, and C's.

At the beginning of the semester, I decided to keep standards high. Then I learned that 60 percent of the sen-iors enrolled in my class really didn't want to be there. They signed up for journalism because nothing else satisfied the graduation requirement or fit their class schedules.

Faced with this same reality, other teachers reluctantly reduced the number of assignments or accepted inferior work. I offered free lunch-time and after-school tutoring and encouraged students with jobs to call me at home for assistance. Few attended the tutoring sessions, and fewer called for help. Large numbers are failing. Standards are dropping.

Here's the dilemma. It's spring semester. There's no time for seniors to repeat courses. If they don't pass this time round, they won't graduate with their class. Do we go ahead and pass those who haven't made the grade? Do we give them a D and let them graduate, adding to the ranks of unqualified high school graduates? Or do we fail them and withhold the diploma that might mean the difference between an entry-level job and unemployment?

Our seniors are not faceless numbers. They're young men and women poised to enter the "real world." Is knowing how to write a news story, solve a geometry problem, or conjugate a verb in French so important to their futures that we should deny them a diploma?

What would you do?

--ADRIENNE MACK

The author teaches journalism at Birmingham High School in Los Angeles.

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