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Does "Fewer Failures" Translate to "Greater Success"?

I was watching the local (New jersey) news channel earlier this school year when something caught my attention: "The percentage of failing grades in a NJ school district fell by approximately 42.5%." Wow! Here's what I could find on the subject.

In an effort to improve student success rates, Mt. Olive School District in NJ eliminated the grade of "D". The required grade for passing was raised from 65 to 70. The new system went into effect in September 2010. Under this system, students who fail can re-take exams and assignments. When a child receives a failing grade, the parents are notified through email. The student then has three to four days to take a test again or repeat an assignment, replacing the original score with the new score, up to 70%. Students may not retake quarter, midterm, or final exams.

The superintendent of Mt Olive schools, Larrie Reynolds, stated that the percentage of failing grades fell by an average of 42.5 percent at the end of the 2010 first quarter grading period, compared to the same time period one year ago. "Failing grades" refer to those grades below 70%. In addition to fewer failing grades, there was also an increase in the number of students scoring A's and B's in the district's middle school.

To achieve the goal of more students succeeding, middle school staff created a "Whatever It Takes" committee to care for targeted, struggling students. High school teachers met with students at lunch time and after school to help re-teach missing concepts.

Students who continue to fail are given the opportunity to attend an after school tutoring program, known as "Sunset Academy." Launched in November 2010, the Sunset Academy, housed at both the middle and high school, is described as a program that is "sufficient to provide full credit recovery for failed first or second quarter identified courses." The successful completion of the Sunset coursework entitles a student to recover credit for a failing grade. The curriculum in the Sunset Academy is intended to mirror the curriculum offered during the student's failed quarter and is intended to strengthen student skills so that the student is adequately prepared for the subsequent courses. Sunset teachers "assist students with homework, upcoming tests, quizzes, projects, and assignments and work related to the specific courses in which students are presently enrolled." When time permits, Sunset teachers re-teach failed assignments, tests, and quizzes. Sunset Academy courses take place after the conclusion of the school day for two hours, two days per week for approximately seven weeks. Sunset Academy's standard for success is 80 percent. Students must complete in-class work assignments with at least 80% mastery before they are allowed to move on to another project. As a result, successful completion of the Sunset Academy program will entitle students to substitute their Sunset Academy grade of 80 percent for their first quarter failed grade for English or Math.

The Sunset Academy program is paid for through tuition ($150 per student per class). Fees are necessary to pay the expenses to run the program (i.e. teacher salaries). The fee entitles the student to 30 hours of instruction which can be used to recover a lost quarterly credit needed for graduation.

Note: Mount Olive, an above-average school in a middle-class New Jersey community.

Some questions came to my mind, so I posed them to Debbie Carter, a teacher of math and computer science at Mt. Olive High School:

Q: How many times can a student retake a quiz/test/assignment? This seems to imply that the classroom teacher is responsible for creating multiple versions of every quiz, test, and assignment.
A: A student is allowed one retake/resubmission. Many of us already create two versions of each test or quiz, to thwart copying, so we give a student the other version of a test for the retake. However, I now delay giving back any quizzes or assignments with passing grades until after the deadline for retakes, to reduce copying or attempts to memorize answers.

Q: Was there input from the teachers when designing this system?
A: No. It was designed fairly quickly just before school started – but some details have been tweaked as a result of teacher input. For example, the initial policy said that the retake score would always replace the original, which discouraged some students because of the risk factor. The policy was amended so that only a higher score will replace the original. However, some students retake tests without making the effort to get help to understand what they missed, which wastes their time and that of their teachers.

Q: It seems that any failing grade can be replaced by an 80% when the student attends the tuition paid Sunset Academy.
A: Students are supposed to have to achieve 80% mastery on work in Sunset Academy (which often consists of their current assignments in the same class, rather than last quarter's work) in order to get the 80% grade, but guidelines haven't been set for how that work will be assessed.
(Two math teachers are currently working with students from five different math courses.) Students will NOT be required to retake the quarterly assessment for the term that they failed.

Q: Is this Sunset Academy for Math and English only or does it apply to all subjects? Where does Computer Science fit? If it is not included, not fair. If it is included, who teaches it? There are so few CS teachers in any one district.
A: Sunset Academy is currently available only for English and Math (most critical for graduation). I believe there are plans to include Science and Social Studies next year. I can't foresee it being offered for any electives, due to reduced demand and the supply of teachers.

Debbie added, "I really like the philosophy behind this policy. I often said that a student who barely passed wasn't prepared for the next math course, and we did them a disservice by suggesting that they were. I had previously had several students who played the system just enough to get that 65% passing average (and a few who misjudged the amount of required effort and fell short). We now require more of students, and many of them are rising to the challenge. We still have some kinks to work out of the system. We're all pleased when students make the effort to re-learn what they missed the first time, but teachers are spending a good bit of extra time (during lunch or prep) to manage the retakes."

I am pretty sure that Mt. Olive is not the only school district that has eliminated the "D" grade. What advantages and disadvantages do you see with this system? What are your thoughts?


  • http://www.nytimes.com/2010/08/08/education/08grades.html?_r=1
  • http://blogs.ajc.com/get-schooled-blog/2010/08/09/look-ma-no-ds-a-school-system-bans-ds-from-its-grading-scale-to-push-kids-to-work-harder/
  • http://www.facebook.com/group.php?gid=138621562840517
  • http://newjerseyhills.com/mt_olive_chronicle/news/article_879764a0-fd61-11df-9b51-001cc4c03286.html
  • Fran Trees
    CSTA Chapter Liaison


    As teachers, we rarely test across multiple topics. The tyranny of the topic test will often dominate our thinking. I am a strong advocate for cumulative testing in all school subjects. http://www.russellboyle.com/cumulativetesting.pdf

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