- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 21, 2003

FREDERICK, Md. — D is for disagreement in the Frederick County schools.

Last year, the local school board eliminated the D grade for high school students, convinced that those doing marginal work would push themselves to earn Cs rather than settling for Fs.

Three days into this school year, the policy was dumped by a reconstituted school board on a 4-3 vote that stunned administrators.

The fallout has included accusations of grade inflation, racial insensitivity and heavy-handed tactics. The reversal puzzled students and parents, and sent administrators searching for some other way of boosting academic performance to satisfy the public’s hunger for measurable results.

“There are hundreds of school systems right now that are scrambling to find some kind of system, some kind of magic bullet, a program of some type to change the culture in their school system. We had that,” said Henry L. Bohlander, instructional director of high schools for Frederick County public schools.

At the root of the matter is an age-old dispute over educational methods. No-D advocates say children will naturally strive to meet heightened expectations. But Dr. Michael Schaden, the board member who led the reinstatement effort, argues that while a C is an attractive carrot, a D can be a useful stick.

“There are some students who need a kick in the rear end to get up to the next level,” he said. “I’m much more willing to leave the form of motivation to the individual classroom teacher rather than making it an overall school system policy.”

The vote on Aug. 27 followed a year of generally positive but still mixed results for the program, which had drawn attention from educators around the country. Overall, the share of final grades of C and higher rose — but so did the percentage of Fs. The data suggested that about two-thirds of marginal students improved. The third that did not failed instead of sliding by with Ds.

The increased failure rates for blacks, Hispanics and economically disadvantaged students — groups the policy was supposed to help — were greater than for whites. Dr. Schaden, a veterinarian, said that finding “waved a red flag” in his analysis of the results.

Mr. Bohlander said such discrepancies would have evened out, and the overall program would have shown even greater benefits, if it had been allowed to continue for another year or more. He said administrators expected at least a two-year adjustment period for the no-D program, which was proposed by a community task force after 18 months of study.

Dr. Schaden also noted a steep increase in the number of students ineligible for sports and other extracurricular activities after the Ds were dropped. A student must maintain a 2.0 grade point average and have no failing grades to be eligible for such activities.

“Extracurricular activities keep some of our students in school,” Dr. Schaden said.

Deprived of the positive influence of coaches and teammates, some of those youths may be more likely to become criminals, he said.

He said poverty was a common denominator among struggling students.

One black student, Andrew Gibson, a junior at Frederick High School, said board members seemed overly concerned with race in their deliberations.

“It’s not just minorities that are failing,” Andrew wrote in a letter to the Frederick-News Post. “Putting the D back in schools just so more students can pass is very demoralizing, due to the fact that a lot of the students could do better if they really wanted to and had the needed resources.”

Fifty-one percent of teachers felt the no-D program boosted student achievement, according a survey conducted by the Frederick County Teachers Association. Fifty-three percent said it had led to grade inflation, and the teachers overwhelmingly felt ignored in the planning and implementation of the no-D program, the survey found.

“I don’t think people had the feeling we had considered all of the different options,” association President Nancy Dietz said.

Dr. Schaden said board members listened to the teachers’ complaints in deciding to reinstate the D.

The board had no formal reaction, though, from the county’s council of Parent Teacher Associations, whose leaders were as surprised as Mr. Bohlander by the sudden vote last month, said Susan Butt, the council president.

“I don’t know how the board members’ vote could have reflected the sentiment of the community when the community was not in the decision-making process,” she said.

Members of the group’s executive committee held strong opinions either way about the program, she said.

School board President Ronald W. Peppe, a lawyer, voted against reinstating Ds.

He is one of two current members who was also on the board that voted unanimously in 2000 to delete Ds from the grading system.

Mr. Peppe said that instead of killing the program, the current board should have used the teacher report as a guide for improving it.

“I think if we had to do it over again, we would have some more involvement and certainly more support” for the teachers, such as additional training days, he said.

Dr. Schaden said reinstating Ds should not be viewed as lowering expectations.

“A D grade is not an academic goal,” he said. “It is a warning and safety net indicating less than satisfactory performance. We expect all students to give their best effort.”

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