My Resolution? No more failures.

gradesI suppose it is a bit of a cliche to make a New Year’s Resolution that is unattainable, and I want to make it clear that this is not my intent.  I have spent my eight-year teaching career migrating across the spectrum from an ultra-easygoing “friend to every student” to a “sage on the stage” to where I am today.  As I look at what I teach and how I teach it, I am left feeling inadequate.

Partly, this depressing assessment comes from the many competing interests that drive my teaching style and my personal philosophy.  First, I am a scientist.  I believe that every single American child needs to leave our public school system with the fundamental scientific literacy necessary to be a thoughtful and independent citizen.  Specifically, I find myself more and more frustrated with the growing tide of anti-vaccination efforts and “teach the controversy” movements that are based on pseudo-science and fueled by the ignorance of many Americans.  I know that sounds harsh, but it’s shockingly true.  I’m not an activist teacher, but I do make a concerted effort to dispel misconceptions and make it clear that science is just a very powerful problem-solving technique.

But, I am also a teacher and father who knows that children learn in different ways and at different paces.  Is it really productive to set absolute standards that some children will not be able to reach?  I have seen many times the impact of students who no longer believe that they can succeed.  They become the bullies and class clowns that pull me away from teaching and engaging other students.  It’s clear to me that we need to keep the carrot far enough ahead of each student so that he is motivated to achieve, but close enough that he doesn’t lose hope.

I take personally much of the criticism that is leveled against the public education system, claiming that we coddle children and protect them from the cruel realities and unyielding requirements of the “real world”.  How do we reconcile these opposing viewpoints?  Do we determine some basic level of mastery and require it of every student?  Or, do we seek to move each student forward a set amount each year, regardless of whether they achieve mastery?

These are the questions that keep me up at night.  Well, these questions and a disturbing addiction to caffeine.  In search of an answer, I have spent this holiday break (mine is combined with a two-week year-round track-out break) reading and collaborating with my PLN.  I owe much of where I stand today on what I’ve learned from Ken O’Connor’s “How to Grade for Learning“, the formative assessment work of Page Keeley, and some sage advice from Science Goddess (who recommended the O’Connor book).  The short and sweet version of it is this: Beginning this semester, I am utilizing a grading system based on no failing marks.  Students who submit work that does not meet the standards set for a “C” will earn an “Incomplete” until the work is re-submitted at the requisite level.  Students who go above and beyond the minimum requirements will continue to earn “A” and “B” marks.

The philosophy behind this grading system is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say it rewards my highly motivated students while simultaneously encouraging those with substandard work to see their work as the product of revision and improvement.  Once it’s up and running, this system should result in a zero percent failure rate as measured by mastery of the minimum standards (that’s a “C”).

I don’t know whether we are best served by encouraging our more challenged students with marks based  at least partly on effort, or whether we need to draw that line in the sand and say, “If you don’t get to this point, you can not pass my class.”  The answer may seem obvious, but it so difficult to watch a student with a low I.Q. put forth a Herculean effort and still not reach the bar.  Clearly, we need a place for these students, and this system doesn’t provide it.  What is unclear at this time is what will happen to those whom I remediate to no avail.


For now, I am on my own with this little experiment, as my school and district move with glacial speed toward some undefined “improvement in grading practices”. I believe strongly in this change and I simply can’t wait for those in power to make the difficult decisions that are needed.  As I recently shared with a colleague who has played devil’s advocate to many of my grading arguments, the change has to start somewhere.

10 thoughts on “My Resolution? No more failures.

  1. Kudos, Paul, for taking action on your grading practice. I was in a Science Ed class with Page at UMaine – it’s a benefit to many that she’s now in the leadership position she’s in and that her ideas are more widely published. I haven’t read O’Connor’s book, but it sounds like it has many of the same great points that SG promotes in her blogging on standards-based grading. The system you’re working with is, by definition, going to reduce your failure rate to zero – but what are your plans for facilitating make up work and missed work? At what point will “I”s cause a student to fail your course – and will they have to repeat, or will they be socially promoted, thereby undermining your effort toward grade-level mastery? Will students who do make up work and do meet expectations be eligible for A’s & B’s, or will their repeated attempts max out at the C level? The above are some questions that we wrangle with at my school (we do standards-based grading, except for the “I” part .. we have Ds & Fs for students who don’t meet expectations, and we consider Cs to only partially meet) – I don’t think there are any perfect answers, but I’m interested to know what you think.


  2. Jonathan,
    Thank you for your input and for continuing the conversation. Unfortunately, by instituting this change at the “grassroots” level as I have, there will be limited support from outside my school. Even in my building there will be challenges. I will need to prove its efficacy before it is adopted more widely. For the time being, I will be working in small groups to remediate those who do not earn at least a C, and allow retake opportunities for summative assessments. If it comes down to it, I don’t know that I will be able to strictly enforce the consequences. But, I have the advantage of working with a relatively small number of students whom I know well and I think that increases my chances of success. Hopefully, I’ll be able to answer more of your questions in a few months.


  3. Paul, I’m inspired by your policy. I’ve gone back and forth between revision policies with my comm college students, but this seems to be a middle ground that could really work. It’s just common sense to have students keep working on something until they success rather than failing them and calling it a day.

    Thanks for the fresh idea.


  4. I have tried the approach of giving incompletes. Sadly, a lot of the work never came back, and if it did, it was not quality work. I’m not sure how to handle kids who don’t want to work hard. We did have a different standard for those kids who were in Content Mastery and gave their all. Their work was graded based on their capabilities.


  5. I teach 3-4-5th grades. I don’t retain students. I just tell them they cannot get out of my class until the master the standards they need to master. That could mean up to 3 years of sticking with me. I am a strict taskmaster. They usually want to get out of my room and be with the other teachers. I am not mean. I just require mastery.


  6. I’ve had good luck with refusing to give F’s. My student completion rate is really high and the mastery level has been fairily high as well. I actually wrote a blog about this recently, where I mentioned my own paradigm shift of moving away from letter grades and into authentic assessments.


  7. This is something I’m struggling with as well. My concern is that students who do NOT show mastery of the standards will be allowed to progress if I do not have an “average” that prevents it. Until I am certain that students will be required to show mastery before progressing, and that administration will support me on this, I’m hanging on to zero.


  8. I am reading this post and comments knowing this is really where I want and need to go. I have two very low level classes.These are the students who in classes would be the few that failed. They are all dumped into these classes as they cannot complete any other science class. Some do not want to do work but others are so low in skills that they have e hard time completing. How do you differentiate instruction and get them all moving to pass without getting hopelessly behind? I will follow this on your blog to see what transpires. It definitely is the direction we need to go,no doubt.


  9. Thanks to those who have shared their experiences and questions. Obviously, I don’t have all of the answers, but I can tell you what my plans are for now.

    First, as Betty points out, incompletes are an issue. I am dealing with this by requiring those who do not submit work (or submit inadequate work) to come back at lunch and have a working lunch with me. This is only for summative assessments that will go in my gradebook, and this requires a lot of my time. The goal is to treat slack work ethic as a poor behavior, similar to disrupting class or using inappropriate language, and deal with it similarly.

    And Clix concern about having an “average” to defend your decision is understandable, but we need to train parents and students that my summative judgement, based on numerous pieces of factual information, is a more fair measure.



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