How Dumping the D Supports Struggling Students and Preps them for College

“When they became engaged, they met that bar.”

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Solutions to complex problems are sometimes right in front of us. Yet for whatever reason, we don’t act. Change is difficult when everyone is doing the same thing, year after year — now matter how bad the results. So we ignore the low-hanging fruit dangling right there. It’s hard to be one of the first to try something new.

Over a decade ago, Louise Waters and the Leadership Public Schools team had a big problem. Though LPS required completing an A-G curriculum to graduate, some of their schools showed an unacceptably high dropout rate and all schools had many students getting “D” grades. This meant that many students taking the college-ready A-G curriculum would actually graduate ineligible for the CSU or UC system since four-year colleges required passing these courses with a C or better. So LPS made a systemic change that has now impacted the lives of many hundreds of students: a D no longer counted as a passing grade.

Instead of falling through the cracks, former D students rose to meet the new bar. The result — more students of color and from historically underserved backgrounds being eligible for four-year college, and fewer students dropping out.

“This actually increased our graduation rates,” Waters said, “it didn’t push students out.”

That dropping the D grade would result in pushing students out was one of the fears when LPS launched a pilot of the policy in 2009. The fear, from some educators and parents, was that by increasing the rigor and taking away the D for all students, the dropout rate would increase.

The thinking went that those students weren’t trying to go to college, they were just doing enough to get their high school diploma. So they would be the ones hit hardest by the ramifications of the policy, and would end up dropping out — with all of the resulting lifetime negative impacts.

The opposite has happened.

What the LPS staff found was that “there was a huge range” of students with grades below a C, including quite a few on the cusp of a C-. These were students who weren’t continually absent, they were showing up and just getting by — or not.

“When they became engaged, they met that bar,” Waters said.

Dropping the D was a small change, in the scheme of things, but it made a huge difference. The policy impacted a large number of students. “It’s low-hanging fruit,” Waters said, “even though it requires a lot of work.”

LPS had to make significant changes to support the new no D policy. Progress reporting had to be much clearer and systems needed to be built so students could access their grades more often. Schools provided more opportunities for students to catch up — beefing up interventions in class, after school, on Saturdays and during intercessions for students not on track to get a C. An emerging shift to mastery grading encouraged students to redo assignments. For students with significant learning barriers, health or mental health issues, or very disrupted situations, a Student Study Team could be called. With parent and student agreement, it could modify the A-G graduation requirement and allow students to graduate simply meeting the minimum State graduation standard.

The results were so positive after Year 1 of the pilot, Waters said, that instead of rolling it out more slowly, dropping the D became the policy at all the LPS schools the following fall.

While the policy has proven successful for LPS, Waters said what was important was getting buy-in from families and staff during the pilot year, paying careful attention to implementation and showing that this new endeavor worked. Otherwise, it can be written off as just another top-down directive and bring out naysayers before anything is even tried.

“If you start on more of a voluntary basis, then you can build momentum and let the results bring people in,” Waters said.

While some district and charter schools in Oakland already have no D policies, Waters said she thinks the interventions and supports needed for success could be an appropriate expenditures under Measure N, which funds college and career readiness programs for Oakland public schools.

Could this be another piece of low-hanging fruit?

“Almost any career needs high school graduation,” Waters said. “And since it’s ‘college and career readiness,’ it can be used for academic supports and interventions. Getting kids A to G eligible is important to opening up the full range of career options within any pathway.”

A guest post from Families in Action

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