I am not a teacher. I am not a principal. I am not a school board member. I am not a district administrator (anymore). What I am is a mother of two, a high schooler and middle schooler. I expect them both to do their “personal best” across the board: chores, projects, personal relationships and yes, school. That does not mean all A's or B's. We recognize the sometimes arbitrary nature of grades. (For example, what is “class participation”—is it how much you talk, even when your comments are off topic?) We have made it very clear that as long as they do their “personal best,” we are proud. That doesn’t mean, though, that when someone’s personal best results in a poor grade, we should look away. We have to ask what that grade tells us. Often, it’s something important. I believe grading floors—the practice (for now, banned in Memphis where I live) of deciding the lowest possible grade to give a student—are a short-sighted solution to a larger issue. If we use grade floors without acknowledging why we feel compelled to do so, we perpetuate the very problem we seek to address. In a recent piece, Marlena Little, an obviously dedicated teacher, cites Superintendent Dorsey Hopson’s primary drive for grade floors as a desire to avoid “creat[ing] kids who don’t have hope.” I am not without empathy for the toll failing a course may take on a student. But this sentiment focuses on the social-emotional learning aspect of our students’ education only. Learning a subject builds knowledge. Obtaining an unearned grade only provides a misleading indication of a child’s growth. This matters because our students depend on us to ensure they will be prepared for opportunities after high school. To do this, our students must possess, at the very least, a foundation in reading, writing and arithmetic. If we mask real academic issues with grade floors year after year, we risk missing a chance to hold everyone—community, parents, the school board, district administration, school leaders, teachers and students—accountable for rectifying the issue. It also may mean our students will be unable to find employment providing living wages, resulting in the perpetuation of generational poverty. An accurate grade helps the teacher, parents and district appropriately respond to the needs of the student. And true compassion lies in how we respond to a student’s F. It should act as an alarm, triggering access to additional work, other intervention from the teacher or school, or the use of a grade recovery program. Ms. Little also illustrates how important it is to have a shared understanding about what grades should mean. If the fifth-grade boy she refers to who demonstrates mastery of a subject orally but has a problem demonstrating that in a written format, why should he earn a zero (or near-zero) in the class? If we agree that grades should provide an indicator of how well a student knows the subject at hand, I would argue that that fifth-grade boy should earn a passing grade. He knows the work! We don’t need grade floors in that case—we need different ideas about grades themselves. We should also reconsider the idea that an F is an F. It is not. A zero indicates that the student did not understand any of the work or the student did not do any of the work. A 50 percent could indicate that the student understood the information half the time. That is a distinction with a difference. Where should we go from here? I have a few ideas, and welcome more:
In the short term, utilize the grade recovery rules that allow a student to use the nine weeks after receiving a failing grade to demonstrate their mastery of a subject—or “personal best”—through monitored and documented additional work.
In the intermediate term, create or allow teachers to create alternative assessments like those used with students with disabilities to accommodate different ways of demonstrating mastery of a subject.
In the long term, in the absence of additional money for the district, redeploy resources in a coordinated and strategic way to help families and teachers support student learning. Invest in the development of a rich, substantive core curriculum and give teachers the training and collaboration time they need.
I, like Ms. Little, do not have all the answers. This is work that requires our collective brilliance and commitment for the sake of our children.
Natalie McKinney is the executive director of Whole Child Strategies, Inc., a Memphis-based nonprofit that provides funding and support for community-driven solutions for addressing attendance and discipline issues that hinder academic success. She previously served as the director of policy for both Shelby County Schools and legacy Memphis City Schools.