Maria Chavez had drawn zeros for blowing off her first two assignments in English, and in a normal year that would have been no problem.
Without much strain, the El Cajon Valley High School senior could have hoisted her F average to a D, the minimum passing grade. “I was, like, the kind of student who would settle for a D,” she said.
This year, her school wouldn’t let her. In a pilot program that began in January, El Cajon’s English department joined a handful of schools and districts across the country in dropping the D from grade books.
Mindful of meeting new state standards in education, instructors at El Cajon and elsewhere have decided that the barely passing grade, the salvation of the lousy or lazy student, is no mark of achievement -- and ought not to be a mark at all.
Students must either demonstrate satisfactory performance by earning a C or above, or they flunk.
Teachers hope that students will respond as Chavez has -- by getting busy. In the three months after her lapse, she turned in every homework assignment.
“I can’t fail if I want to graduate,” Chavez said one morning recently as she completed a worksheet for the English class. “Now I have a B-minus and I’m going to keep it.”
Earlier this month, she secured her B-minus in English and her diploma.
Although no one keeps comprehensive statistics on grading practices, at least a dozen secondary schools in Arizona, Florida, Maryland, Ohio, Oklahoma and Texas have ditched the D in the last decade.
In California, it has been dropped in high schools in Rocklin, San Diego and Temecula.
And this school year, El Cajon’s English department, along with high schools in Yucaipa and in Frederick County, Md., joined their ranks.
A Los Angeles Unified School District committee is considering grading reforms, including dropping the D, by 2004-05.
Proponents of D-free report cards argue that if the passing grade is set at C, that’s where many students will aim their efforts.
“High school students are very sophisticated: They know what they can get away with,” said Henry Bohlander, instructional director for high schools in Frederick County, where Ds were banned last fall.
Bohlander thinks that aiming for Ds is counterproductive. “In the work world, a day of D work would get you fired,” he said.
Many colleges, as well, do not recognize the D as a passing grade among high school applicants. And a D average will get a high school athlete kicked off a team.
“But we’re willing to give a high school diploma to someone with a D average,” said Phil Spears, director of standards and assessment for the California Department of Education. “This makes no sense.”
Not everyone agrees. Some educators and parents say the D is needed to reward the student who achieves little over the student who achieves nothing.
“If you get an F, then you’re not performing at all and not doing anything,” said Kendra Nichols, an assistant principal at Compton High School. “A D means you’re not working to standards yet, but you may be trying to do the work.”
Anthony Wager considered his stepson, a ninth-grader at El Cajon, a case in point.
“He’s trying his best ... and he can only attain a D-plus” in English, Wager said several weeks ago. “Now that they’re failing him, it only frustrates him.”
The boy, Anthony Vazquez, said he cared about school but lacked the time to finish homework assignments and projects.
“When I get home, I have to clean up the house, take care of my brother or cook dinner,” the 14-year-old said. “I get mad that I can’t finish [assignments] on time. I just feel I’m going to fail.”
Vazquez ended the year with a C-minus. English teacher Barbara Dagman said the no-D policy drove him to work harder.
“I’d say it motivated him because he saw things in black and white, either I pass or I fail.”
In at least two cases in the last four years, opposition from parents and guidance counselors caused the D to be reinstated.
Districts in Hernando County, Fla., and Edmund, Okla., reversed their bans after critics complained that students’ grade-point averages were unfairly lowered because teachers issued Fs instead of Ds. That made it harder for students to meet minimum GPAs to play sports, transfer to another district or obtain scholarships and admission to college.
Discouraged students may choose to abandon education altogether, said Thomas Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky who served as a consultant to Frederick County.
Before dropping the D, schools need to invest in tutoring programs, longer office hours for instructors and teacher-training programs to keep struggling students from failing, education experts said.
Such programs cost money, which may explain why Ds appear to be dropped more often in affluent school districts, Guskey said.
Some educators are wary of banning Ds for fear of prompting soft-hearted teachers to hand out undeserved Cs.
School board member Barbara Tooker initially opposed the D ban passed by the Temecula Valley Unified School District in 1998 partly because of such worries. But Tooker, who now supports the no-D policy, said that teachers do not seem to be padding grades, which are compared to students’ performance on standardized tests.
The growing importance of state exams is, in fact, one of the reasons schools have chosen to eliminate the D.
In the 1990s, many states began insisting on the attainment of certain standards in core subject areas, as demonstrated by performance on assessment tests and high school exit exams.
This has put pressure on local districts to rethink how they evaluate their students, especially in high school.
Some have abandoned the old letter-grade system altogether, replacing it with numbers. Others have redefined letter grades with an emphasis on whether students have mastered, or are “proficient” in certain subject areas.
If a student scores below 70%, generally the minimum level for a C, he or she “has not mastered the content of that course,” said Spears, the California standards director. “We want our diplomas to mean something.”
El Cajon’s desire to boost the school’s performance on state tests led the English department to launch the no-D pilot project, said Laura Whitaker, El Cajon’s literacy coordinator.
“Several teachers said they thought a lot of students were skating by with 60%, a D,” Whitaker said. “But a C was proficiency, so why should the kids move on if they hadn’t achieved proficiency?”
Principal William Melton agreed with the English teachers, and decided to test the grading policy in English classes. The school will evaluate the program this summer to see if it should be expanded.
Although El Cajon is not in a rich school district, officials said it was able to build up its tutoring programs and group students so they could spend more time with each teacher.
“I see it as part of the whole redesign of the curriculum,” Melton said of the no-D initiative. “We’re asking more of our kids and it makes sense to look at every aspect of that, including grades.”
Success is difficult to measure, however. It often takes time for test scores, for example, to show improvement.
Still, preliminary evidence is positive, teachers said. At Crawford High School in San Diego, where Ds have been eliminated in certain classes for five years, social studies teacher Scott Page said the percentage of Fs has remained the same while the percentage of Cs has risen.
“We’ve seen kids work harder and come in for help more often,” Page said.
Teachers at El Cajon point to students such as Maria Chavez to illustrate what is the best scenario.
Though Chavez often works evenings at El Pollo Loco, she now knows that she cannot let her school work slide. “I’m not going to work fast food for the rest of my life,” she said before school ended this month. “I’m going to be the first in my family to graduate from high school.”