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360: Changing the grade scale boosts failing Colorado students to passing

Parents and experts debate Douglas County's move
Posted at 8:03 AM, Jan 11, 2021
and last updated 2021-01-11 10:03:18-05

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Most educators have acknowledged that remote learning is presenting unprecedented challenges for students, and some schools have tried to be lenient while still holding students accountable.

Last semester, in response to a larger number of failing students, the Douglas County School District adjusting the A to F grading scale. The changed lowered the threshold for a D to 52%, meaning some students who would have failed a class, were able to get a passing D.

Interim Superintendent Corey Wise said the change was made at the request of high school principals, who felt it was a way to provide consistency across the district.

Previous grading scale:
A: 90-100
B: 80-89
C: 70-79
D: 60-69
F: Below 60

New grading scale:
A: 88-100
B: 76-87
C: 64-75
D: 52-63
F: Below 52

Mountain Vista High School junior Landon Rosenhahn was failing three classes, but the grade scale change in November bumped him to a passing grade. His mom, Jandy Miller, said she believes the new grades were more in line with his pre- pandemic performance. She also said it gave him renewed confidence after a difficult and discouraging semester.

“This brought a little spark in his eye, and he finished strong," Miller said. "He had a few low classes but all in all, it really helped him out."

But Jen Iversen, mother of a Highlands Ranch High School junior, isn’t happy her son passed his English class with a 54%.

“Typically, to me, that would mean failing, which would mean he did not learn what he was supposed to learn during that class,” Iversen said.

Iversen said she feels passing a student who should have repeated the class does them a disservice.

But Kevin Welner, director of the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado Boulder, said failing students doesn’t always help them either.

“We know that holding students back or delaying their graduation results in dropouts,” said Welner.

He said the better way to intervene for those students is with intensified support.

Douglas County Interim Superintendent Wise said he does not believe the grade change resulted in students moving on who are not ready.

"I think when you look at the small adjustment we made – that’s not always going to be the case, and I would say readiness is a variable that isn’t always controlled by grade," said Wise. The district has discussed new interventions for struggling students during the spring semester.

However, failing students weren’t the only ones helped by the grade scale change: Are high-performing students also given an unfair advantage? According to Welner, not necessarily.

“Pre-COVID, we also had grade inflation. Pre-COVID we had weighted grades that primarily benefited the already advantaged. We already had uneven grading practices. So a B in one classroom indicated a different level of accomplishment than a B in another school or classroom,” said Welner.

Chalane Lechuga, a professor of Chicano Studies at Metro State University and an expert on education equity, said colleges have also moved away from quantitative measures of ability, like GPA and standardized test scores.

“We know that standardized tests have a tendency to not predict success in higher education for BIPOC communities,” Lechuga said.

In recent years, the University of Colorado and Colorado State University have gone “test optional” and no longer require students to provide SAT or ACT scores for admission. Lechuga applauds such measures, and believes colleges should continue factoring in students backgrounds and life experiences.