At West Potomac High School, taking F off the grade books

By Donna St. George
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, November 14, 2010; 12:04 AM

Depending on whom you ask, West Potomac High School's latest change to student grading is either another sign of a coddled generation or a necessary step to help struggling kids.

The dreaded F has been all but banished from the grade books.

The report cards that arrived home late last week showed few failing grades but instead marks of "I" for incomplete, indicating that students still owe their teachers essential work. They will get Fs only if they fail to complete assignments and learn the content in the months to come.

The change in educational philosophy is intended to encourage students to continue working toward mastery of material rather than accepting a failing grade and moving on. Schools throughout the Washington area and the nation have made other moves to improve grading methods, especially as they affect low-performing students, though few have gone so far as West Potomac High, in the Alexandria section of Fairfax County.

"It's a huge paradigm shift," said principal Clifford Hardison, who recalls that when year-end grades were tallied last June at West Potomac, he counted nearly 2,000 Fs, with a large group of teens racking up more than one failed course.

The new strategy has critics - both within West Potomac and beyond - who fear that reducing the possibility of outright failure gives teachers less leverage while also giving students unrealistic expectations about the adult world they soon will enter. Some worry that the reordering of deadlines and test opportunities will also affect the transcripts of the college-bound, giving some students an advantage.

Mary Mathewson, an English teacher, says a number of her colleagues are "livid" about the grading change, which "takes away one of the very few tools we have to get kids to learn." The possibility of failing is a motivator, she says, and now "kids are under the impression they can do it whenever they want to, and it's not that big of a deal."

In the first quarter, half of Mathewson's grades for two 10th-grade English classes were incompletes. "I don't believe it's an extra chance," she said. "It's an out. The root problem is motivation. The root problem is not that we're not teaching them."

In Alexandria, T.C. Williams High School recently adopted a policy allowing incompletes to be given as placeholders, but with fixed time limits for completing the work; Fs are still given. Montgomery County recalibrated its failing marks several years ago to score Fs as no lower than 50 percent when calculating grade averages, rather the far more damaging zero. In Prince William County, schools have made it easier to retake tests and awarded fewer outright zeroes.

"Once they demonstrate mastery, you give them credit for what they know," said Mickey Mulgrew, Prince William's associate superintendent for high schools. The growing belief, he said, is: "Who cares if you learned it on Monday or Tuesday, as long as you learned it?"

In Fairfax County, Peter Noonan, assistant superintendent for instructional services, says the high-performing system is not scrapping the A-to-F grading scale, but a small group of entrepreneurial principals are trying new approaches, using standards-based ideas about the importance of learning content.

"If we really want students to know and do the work, why would we give them an F and move on?" Noonan said." . . . I think the students who are struggling should not be penalized for not learning at the same rate as their peers."

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