Assessment

California Schools Experiment With Deletion of D’s

By David J. Hoff — May 07, 2003 | Corrected: February 23, 2019 2 min read
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Corrected: This story misstated the number of students receiving F’s who would have been given D’s under the previous policy. About 40 of the 100 students who received D’s in English for the entire first semester at El Cajon Valley High School dropped their grades to F’s in the third quarter.

English teachers at a California high school have deleted the letter D from their grade books.

The English department at El Cajon Valley High School outside San Diego say they noticed that D students were scoring poorly on state tests. They decided to start failing students whose averages fell between 60 and 69.5—the range which, until recently, resulted in a D.

Although only one grading period old, the experiment has yielded positive results, according to Laura E. Whitaker, the literacy coordinator at the 2,300-student school in the Grossmont Union High School District. After the English department did away with D’s in the third quarter, about 50 of the students who earned that grade in the previous quarter raised their averages to C’s, she said. But about 100 of the former D students dropped to F, she said.

Not all students are delighted that the letter D has been removed from English teachers’ alphabet, Ms. Whitaker said, though most recognize that they can respond to the change by working harder.

“They’re saying: ‘You know, I make a D, but with a little more effort, I can make a C,’” Ms. Whitaker said. “That’s exactly what we’re after.”

Greater Expectations

El Cajon Valley High School is 20 miles east of the heart of San Diego and reflects a lot of the demographics of Southern California. About half the school’s students are white, 35 percent are Hispanic, and 11 percent are African-American.

Last year, 4 percent of the school’s seniors enrolled in the competitive University of California system, and 8 percent attended a campus of the California State University. Another 34 percent went to community colleges. More than half didn’t go to college.

Grade inflation has been held in check at El Cajon Valley High. According to a district report, the grade point average at the school remained steady from 1992 to 1998.

But high failure rates on state exams have been a problem.

Only 13 percent of 9th and 11th graders at El Cajon Valley scored at or above “proficient” on the English/language arts portion of the California Standards Test. Just 17 percent of 10th graders scored that high. The scores were the lowest in the district.

In January 2002, just 46 percent of the seniors at the school passed the California High School Exit Exam, which is required to earn a diploma. The school’s average score was the second-lowest of the 11 schools in the 24,500-student Grossmont Union High School system.

English teachers noticed that almost all D students failed the exit exam, Ms. Whitaker said, and started questioning if it was appropriate to give a passing grade to someone likely to flunk that test.

Teachers in other departments are closely watching the English department’s experiment and are considering doing it in their own classes.

“They’re all very excited about it,” Ms. Whitaker said. There’s a “very good chance” that D’s will be eliminated from the entire school’s grading policy next year, she added.

If that happens, El Cajon Valley High School would be the second school in the district to downplay the D.

Helix Charter High School has discouraged its teachers from giving D’s because the grade doesn’t reflect the quality of work the school expects from its students, according to Mimi Test, an assistant principal at the 2,500-student school.

“It’s not showing the level of competency we expect our students to have to continue to march along,” Ms. Hall said.

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