It’s hard to fail

To boost graduation rates, some principals are making it nearly impossible to fail, reports Samuel Freedman in the New York Times.

Several weeks into his first year of teaching math at the High School of Arts and Technology in Manhattan, Austin Lampros received a copy of the school’s grading policy. He took particular note of the stipulation that a student who attended class even once during a semester, who did absolutely nothing else, was to be given 45 points on the 100-point scale, just 20 short of a passing mark.

Indira Fernandez, a fifth-year senior in Lampros’s intermediate algebra class, skipped class two-thirds of the time and flunked the first semester. Trying again in second semester, she “missed one-third of the classes, arrived late for 20 sessions, turned in half the required homework assignments, failed 11 of 14 tests and quizzes, and never took the final exam.” When she showed up with doctor’s note two days after the June 12 final, the principal told Lampros to let her retake the missed final — even though the note excused her only from absences before March 15.

After two days of one-on-one tutoring by another math teacher, the student scored a 66 on the final. She was far below a 65 passing average for the semester, so Lampros failed her. The principal reversed the decision, allowed the girl to pass the class and receive a diploma. The teacher quit.

From Michigan, Mr. Lampros recalled one comment that Mrs. Fernandez made during their meeting about why it was important for Indira to graduate. She couldn’t afford to pay for her to attend another senior prom in another senior year.

Meanwhile, Indiana schools are fudging school data, opines the Indy Star. For example, why did Indianapolis Public Schools report 969 seniors at the start of the 2005-06 school year but give diplomas to nearly 1,300 seniors in June, 2006?

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  1. Ex-teacher says:

    When I was a teacher, our principal would bump up those marks which he felt were too low. He did this without investigation into how the mark was determined. The marks were changed after they had been announced to students. This weakened the morale of my fellow teachers and sent a message to students that grades could be negotiated by going over our heads. I very much regret waiting until the end of the year to quit.

  2. Instead of making it harder to fail, Greater Good magazine examines different techniques to make kids succeed. Psychologist Jeffrey Froh explains in his article “A Lesson in Thanks” how he infused middleschool classes with a small dose of gratitude – and found that it made students feel more connected to their friends, family and school, and how more students succeeded.
    link to the article:

  3. The first part is not surprising; I think it’s more and more common and that many people would be surprised at the number of traditionally strong suburban school that have the same ones.

    About the number of seniors: I know that my district might look similar on a smaller scale, but it’s nothing sinister by the district. Most students who are off track for graduation don’t make up the credits until senior year. For example, they will be taking two English classes at the same time, instead of one English and one elective, or going to evening school in addition to day school. So they start the year with 11th grade credits, but at the end of first semester, they are seniors and by May, they have what they need to graduate.

    (In my district, I suspect it would be about 50 kids total. But at a big urban district might be a lot more.

  4. RiShawn Biddle says:

    My name is RiShawn Biddle, editorial writer for the Indianapolis Star and writer of the editorial. While your explanation, NDC, seems plausible at first, you also have to consider the matter of attrition.

    As the editorial mentions, IPS only promotes 31 percent of its 8th graders to senior year. Over that period, some of those students are going to transfer out of the district and some will land in prison. The vast majority, however, are likely going to drop out, either by junior year or after transferring to either a high school in another school district or enter the “day adult” programs that IPS offers.

    Between freshman and sophomore year, 1,400 students from the class of 2006 were held back; they likely make up a portion of the following year’s ‘freshman bulge’ if they don’t drop out or transfer (and then drop out) first. Another 800 fail to get promoted to 11th grade. Considering the level of attrition, it’s unlikely that 300 students suddenly made up two year’s worth of credits. At least not in poor-performing urban schools with abysmally poor rates of promoting power.

  5. RiShawn Biddle says:

    And by the way, thanks Joanne for the mention.

  6. RiShawn Biddle,

    I have very little knowledge of how that district works, so I’ll take your word for it.

    I do have to say that the language of “Between freshman and sophomore year, 1,400 students from the class of 2006 were held back” seems a really goofy way to refer to 9th grade student who didn’t earn enough credits to become 10th graders.

    In elementary school and middle school, promotion may be a subjective decision by the school to “hold kids back”; by high school, they kids are either passing enough classes to move on or they aren’t. Nobody is doing any “holding.” In fact, they are much more likely to be doing some pushing instead, as the first part of this story pointed out.

    The idea that the schools are abysmal because they serve a segment of society that may not value education is also similarly flawed from my perspective. To mix up an old expression: you can lead a horse to water, but if he’d rather stay home and do nothing or needs to work to support her children, even the leading is going to be tough without even getting into trying to make him drink.

    I do think though that a perhaps disproportionate number of kids who are behind are going to make up the credits during senior year. And measuring the number of 8th graders who get out five years later, may not reflect the number of drop outs as the number of kids who are still showing up at school but not accumulating the credits.

    I agree though that there may be something fishy about the numbers you suggest, and I hope that you are able to track the individual kids in a meaningful way to find out exactly what the deal is.