Cumberland schools inflate failing grades to prevent dropouts
Posted January 10, 2012
Fayetteville, N.C. — Cumberland County Schools has put a minimum failing grade in place to encourage high school students to stay in school, but some teachers argue the policy is an education in laziness and irresponsibility.
Superintendent Frank Till said Tuesday that teachers must not give high school students a grade lower than 60 percent for the first two quarters of each semester. Sixty percent is still an "F," but it's only 10 percentage points away from a passing grade.
"The whole idea was to not fail students early in the semester and (to) give them a chance to get their act together," Till said.
When asked if a student could just skate through the first part of the semester without doing anything in the hopes of making up for it later, Till acknowledged that it's possible.
"If a student has the ability to do that, then yes, a student can do that, without a doubt," he said. "Anybody can beat the system, but the idea is really about the students who need an extra boost."
Department of Public Instruction spokeswoman Sara Clark said it's up to individual districts to decide whether to impose a minimum failing grade, but that the state's grade scale calls for anything below a 69 percent to be an "F."
Former Jack Britt High School teacher Ben Van Etten believes the policy teaches the wrong lessons.
"Say you have another kid who's trying hard and he also gets a 60. How is that fair? What lesson is that teaching both those children?" Van Etten said. "You've got to teach them early – as painful as it is – that you get what you earn."
In the past, schools were encouraged to not give students failing grades early in the semester, but Till has now formalized the policy and made it uniform across all schools.
Award-winning Jack Britt High, for example, still gave students less than a 60 when necessary. Other schools had minimum grades ranging from 60 to 69.
Till said the policy is designed to keep students in school, not reward slacking.
"If they fail at the beginning of the year, they stop coming to class, and they'll become a dropout," he said.
Van Etten said he believes students are ill-served by getting a grade that doesn't reflect their level of effort. The policy fails to teach young people the accountability they'll need when they leave school and enter the work force, Van Etten said.
"If you're giving a kid a 60 when he's earned a 25 or 30 or a 40, you're not communicating," he said. "To me, it's almost dishonest to do it that way."
Other school districts have similar policies in place. In Durham, the minimum grade is 60 for the first three quarters of a year-long course.
Clark said the state does not have data on how many school districts have a minimum failing grade, but she noted that low "F"s can have a damaging impact on a student's average.