25 August 2008

In Defense of the 50

In and amongst all of the grading schemes in schools today, the “mandatory 50” is one that seems to catch a lot of flack. Why, one might ask, should a student who does next to nothing deserve a 50 on his report card? Why not give him the 20 (or whatever percentage below fifty it is) he deserves?

The reason for the 50, we are told by various administrators in various districts, is so that the failing student has some hope of passing the semester. If the student were given the 20 that he earned, he would simply give up; the situation would be beyond redemption. Mathematically, that’s likely to be true. Motivationally, it leaves something to be desired…but that’s the topic of another post.

I would make a different argument. Way back when, percentages were not methodically calculated. There was a time when students received letter grades. An “A” meant, roughly, anything 90 or above; a “B”, 80-89; a “C”, 79-70; a “D” (a rare creature now), 69-60. An “F” was a failing grade. But an “F” then could actually be as high as 59%. But an “F” was an “F”. It didn’t matter if it represented a 10 or a 59. At the end of a grading period, teachers would average these letter grades together with some form of calculus, and emerge with a semester grade – represented by a letter.

So really, the “F” of today – the mandatory 50 – is not wildly generous. It is simply a numerical representation of what the old “F” used to stand for. Just as there was no “G” or “H” in the grading scale, there’s nothing lower than a 50 in many places. And that’s just fine with me. Not because a failing student might be “devastated” by a grade which more accurately reflects his work, but because an “F” is still an “F”.

Instead of worrying about giving 50s, those of us in states which dictate a passing score of 70 might ask where the “D” went. Can we really say that many students teeter between being “average” (which is what a “C” used to mean) and failing? Is there such a thing as a “below average” student (which is what a “D” used to mean) who still deserves to pass?

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