Monday, August 03, 2009


Sinkhole Ahead!

As longtime readers know, I'm no fan of the "D" grade. Basically, I don't understand it. (For the longer version of my anti-D diatribe, see here.) It's passing, sort of, but it won't get taken in transfer unless it's safely hidden among other, higher grades. It gives credit, but in some sequences, it doesn't let you move forward. As grades go, it's particularly ambiguous.

Last week, I heard a new twist on the evil of D's.

Apparently, the federal financial aid rules changed recently. Under the old rules, you could re-take a class once or twice (I'm not sure which) for a better grade, and still get aid. Under the new rules, you can only re-take a class you failed. If you passed and you re-take it, you do so on your own dime.

There's some logic to that.

Under our local policy, which isn't unique, students in developmental classes need grades of C or better to take the next course in the sequence.

Again, there's some logic to that. If you barely squeaked by in arithmetic, what are your chances in algebra?

But putting the two policies together creates a weird no-man's-land. If a student gets a D in a developmental class, she can't move forward, but she can't get aid to try again. She's stuck.

Over the long term, we can (and probably will) change our grading policy for developmental classes to eliminate the D at that level. Maybe go with A-B-C-F, or maybe pass/fail. But a change like that takes at least a full year to push through, if it goes through at all. (I can already envision the argument: "Students who used to get D's will now get C's. This is legalized grade inflation!") In the meantime, two sets of rules have collided and opened up a sinkhole under a non-trivial number of students.

Some faculty got wind of the change, and started floating proposals. Some advocate advising certain students to skip the final. If a student gets to the end of the term and is on the cusp of failing, but could go either way, she might be better off intentionally failing; at least with an "F," she can re-take the class. But coaching students to take a dive goes against every academic instinct. Alternately, some professors have announced that they simply won't give D's in these courses. Although I admire the problem-solving spirit, administratively, there's a huge issue with different sections of the same course using different scales. (That's not the same as different professors having different standards. Different standards are to be expected. Different scales -- one with D's and one without -- shouldn't happen in the same course.) Some have simply declared that students get what they get, and financial aid isn't their department. While that's often a reasonable approach, one could argue that when nonsensical and severe consequences for students are reasonably forseeable, it's got a bit of 'denial' to it. (I'm reminded of the old Tom Lehrer lyric: "I just make them go up, I don't care where they come down. That's not my department," said Werner Von Braun.)

I'll admit not fully understanding why we give D's in developmental classes in the first place, if they don't let you move forward. It's not an issue of GPA, since developmental courses don't count in GPA's. It's not about transfer, since developmental courses don't transfer anyway. It seems to be a combination of communicating "better than hopeless," and "we've always done it that way." It never particularly mattered until now, though, so nobody really made an issue of it. Now, suddenly, it's an issue.

It seems clear to me that the long term solution involves changing the grade scale for developmental courses, but I'm flummoxed on the short term. Wise and worldly readers -- do you have any thoughts on how to get through the next year while the policy change goes through?

Your discusion of this is in the context of developmental courses, does the change apply to ALL coursework?
My school at Research 1 dispensed with the "d" eons ago (Long before I arrived--and I've been there/here 13 years).

It's a really weird grade that has weird consequences, many that have little to do with what happened in the particular class.

The distinctions between a "C" and "F" are pretty clear. C means you mastered most of the material, but you're not setting the world on fire with what you do know. F means "clueless." "D" falls somewhere in-between, which seems, at best, to be a "consolation prize."

I say kill it....and make everyone's life a bit easier.
Our institution has abandoned the D in developmental courses. Our lowest-level courses in math and English are now Pass/Fail, and the others are graded A, B, C, F.

Now I can explain why a D is not possible in those courses. Thanks, DD!
Once upon a time "C" was meant to be the median grade, meaning there'd be just as many students getting less than that as more. It was also meant to represent the 70% to 80% mastery of information range.

Meaning half the students would have mastered less than 70% of the material in the class (or else done less than 70% of the work assigned.) I have taken a few classes like this, especially in upper level physics, and especially during my study-abroad year in England. I remember a final exam where 55% was above-average...

But you know, in England your grades in your first year of university don't count at all (at least, not at Durham, they didn't.) And those upper level physics classes weren't pre-requisites for anything.

So I guess what makes sense to me is to have ambitious classes where you're not expected to master much more than two thirds of the material at the upper levels, and in that case it makes sense to have the ability to discriminate between the students who were average and those who already seem to be real scholars in their field...

But at the lower level, you want all of the students to master almost all of the material, then "average" should be close to 100%, and it doesn't make since to have a lot of discrimination above average.

So I think we should either take a hint from England and make lower level courses not count at all, or just grade them pass-fail.
You know that a "D" means the student really failed the class. The teacher knows this. The student, unless particularly clueless, knows this. Transfer institutions certainly know this. Until a formal policy change is made, why not simply instruct all the teachers in these classes to change all "D" grades to "F"? That has the benefit of reflecting the truth, as well as streamlining administrative tasks.
I got a D in my year-long senior capstone project for computer science. This was a project where we had to design a significant software program, code it up, make it work, write it up, prepare a small sales and marketing plan and forecast, and do project management work, including forecasting labor hours and costs for different tasks. First semester was design work (no coding) and second semester was implementation. I happened to choose a project that made me bite off a bit more than I could chew, and I took an I the second semester. (Which eventually resulted in a "D". I got a "D" the first semester as well.) There were no examinations of any kind.

I never knew what to make of that D. If they were telling me I knew enough to "pass" but not enough to "move on" well, isn't that a conundrum? If I passed, I graduated. If they were telling me I would have benefited from taking the course again, I would have asked, in what regard? From a project management or sales and marketing standpoint, how was I any more deficient than my undergraduate classmates? From a coding standpoint, we all chose different projects -- we weren't doing the same work -- and could code them in different languages. Did my "D" mean that my Java code was "worse" than someone else's Perl code? Was I penalized a bit for taking an "I" in the second course?

So, in the end, I was left to ponder the meaning of my "D". I graduated immediately upon passing that course. I went through a class that was quite exploratory and the grading subjective. And, yet, to this day, I have no idea what the true meaning for that "D" really was. In truth, this class should have been a pass/fail course (despite the fact that my school didn't do P/F.)

More recently, I went to grad school to study applied math. We had to do a similar capstone project, and when I asked about the grading, I was told that when you pass, you get an A. Don't pass, you don't finish, and you don't graduate. (And our grading scale was A-B-C-F.)
I'm mixed in my feelings about deep-sixing the "d." Happily, in my online courses (developmental and upper-level)over the last few years the dilemma has largely eliminated itself: the vast majority of students fall into the "c or better" slot, a couple go for the "f" and the "d" has all but vanished. I do not claim to know why this is so, but I suspect that it has something to do with the marginally-adept knowing enough to drop courses before thery earn that scarlet "d," while the fundamentally perplexed Just Don't Get It, hence hold on for those fs. Something similar has happened in my conventional classes, although the d-chasers tend to hold on longer.

Your post gives me much to think about. My school is not close to abandoning the d but maybe this consideration may noodge some folks along. Thanks, DD!
I'm confused! I follow, and agree with, your comments about the D grade, but this has me worried:

That's not the same as different professors having different standards. Different standards are to be expected.

Doesn't this lead to the same problem - that a student may get a C or an F based on which professor they are being taught by, and not the standard they actually achieve, which in tun makes their achievement (or lack of it) hard to evaluate. That strikes me as unfair...
I've taken to just not giving D's.
At our school, the A-range is 90% and above, the B-range is 80-89.9%, and the C-range is 70-79.9%. To get a D, however, you have to score between 67-69.9. Anything lower is an F. So, it's a pretty rare grade. However, anyone who fails a course can retake it and average the grade in GPA calculations, although the F remains on the transcript. Anyone who gets a D is stuck for life. So, the D is traditionally reserved for somebody on the cusp of mastery who refused to put significant effort into passing the course-the ones with the capability, but not the motivation. They are rare, but extremely useful. Of course, since I teach at a military academy, our graduates aren't exactly facing the job market for at least 5 years, and won't be going to graduate school for at least 8. By that time, hopefully, they've learned how to motivate themselves.
At my institution, we have a thing called "F-X," which allows a student to retake a course in which the grade was an F and then have the original attempt removed from their transcripts (a maximum of 10 credit hours can be dealth with this way).

I have colleagues who refuse to fail anyone, giving D- grades instead, because they disapprove of the policy. While I can sort of understand that, it does sort of make a joke out of an official university policy.

On the other hand, we allow students to move forward with grades of D (at least in some cases)...
I always thought a D meant the student had a "passable" level of mastery of the material of the course, but insufficient mastery to be "average" (C), "above average" (B), or "excellent" (A).

I arranged my courses such that a typical student should be able to earn a C+/B-. Then, I was told by the chair we should avoid C- grades to reduce grade complaints for requirements (which needed a C to count and move along the chain), so I basically encompassed the C-/C as one big grade lump. Then we were told to avoid giving the D to reduce grade complaints.


Shouldn't the chair have been wondering why so many students were complaining instead of making us change the way we graded?

We were expected to redistribute our grades AFTER the course was over...just to alleviate sour grapes among poor performing students.

Honestly, every single D I ever awarded probably should have been an F, but, well, the student did some work, some of it was good, and so some credit was earned. No mastery had been gained though, of that I am sure. Heck, I once gave a student a zero on a 10-point assignment she totally screwed up and she had an apoplectic fit because she thought she should get at least half-credit just for doing something.

I think there needs to be a massive movement towards re-incorporating the F back into grading! Allow me to fail a student for not turning in all of the semester's work (gee, no final paper? easy grading!) ...or for missing too many exams/quizzes (oh, need to skip out 2 weeks before the end of the semester? easy grading!) ...or for handing everything in waaaaaaaay too late (skipped 5 minor assignments and handing them in after the last day of classes? easy grading!), and the D will probably disappear...replaced by the much-needed F.
Military Prof:

Not sure what graduate schools you are talking about, but a significant number of officers attend graduate school well before they reach the 8 year point. In fact, many young officers go straight from their Academy to graduate school, whether that is the Air Force graduate school at AFIT, or Naval Postgraduate School, or a civilian institution.

And when reviewing transcripts for the military graduate schools, I can tell you a D (or a C) on a transcript gave us a serious reason to pause. ESPECIALLY coming from the Academy.
I'm not sure that "average" and "grasps the material" are necessarily equally related across every field. Just saying.
I always thought a D meant the student had a "passable" level of mastery of the material of the course, but insufficient mastery to be "average" (C), "above average" (B), or "excellent" (A).

I arranged my courses such that a typical student should be able to earn a C+/B-.

So the typical student is above average? Sounds like you teach in Lake Wobegon!
So the typical student is above average? Sounds like you teach in Lake Wobegon!


No, just the Fairy-Land of Grade Inflation.

As I said before, I really wanted to fail several students every semester, but I knew I'd never be re-hired again in future semesters if I did. Despite the high median/mode grades, I still got grilled (and skewered!) because of a handful of grade complaints from poor performers.

It's why I quit grad school, too.
That's always been a weird complaint to me -- if everyone else on campus grades differently from you, then the campus may have a policy you don't agree with, but it's the campus's way of doing things. Grades are communication. You wouldn't expect to conduct your lectures in Latin and then complain that the campus was not holding to established modes of conduct.
DD, you write:

Apparently, the federal financial aid rules changed recently.


do you have any thoughts on how to get through the next year while the policy change goes through?

Which is it? Has the policy changed recently (barely past tense), has it changed with a future effective date one year from now, or is there a proposal in the Federal Register that has yet to be finalized?

I don't know what our developmental classes do, but they could probably get by with an A,C,F scale since the grades don't count for anything. A "C" would indicate mastery and passing the exit exam, while an "A" would indicate a student who remembered quickly what was learned in a past life or just tested poorly due to a hangover.

I know that I give very few "D" grades in my class. Most students simply quit in one way or another. When I do give a "D", it means the student finished the class but I would not drive over a bridge that student designed. The old "would you want to see that student standing over you in the emergency room" standard.

As I wrote the first time you brought this up, I will close by saying that you should be happy you don't have a "C-" grade in your calculus classes, where the student hasn't passed but can't even repeat it.
CCPhysicist -- No, you missed the point. The Federal rule has already changed. It will take us at least a year to change our local rule about D's. I'm looking for an elegant way to bridge that gap year.
@ Punditus Maximus, 4:40 p.m.: You are onto something--“average” and “grasps the material” do not necessarily mean the same thing.

They reflect the difference between assessing a student’s performance in relation to that of his/her peers and assessing his/her performance in relation to a set of criteria, i.e., the difference between norm-referenced and criterion-referenced assessment. Many people in universities seem to overlook this distinction in discussions of grade inflation and similar topics.

For instance, in the context of foreign language teaching, criterion-referenced assessment might look at whether a student can carry out straightforward service transactions, talk about everyday activities, have simple conversations about concrete topics, and whatever else you expect a student to be able to do at the end of that course. Someone who can do all these things to a high level of fluency/accuracy/cultural appropriateness gets an A. If the whole class can do these things to a high level of fluency/accuracy/cultural appropriateness, everyone gets an A, and there’s nothing wrong with that grade-inflation-wise because everyone has demonstrated that they “grasp the material” well.

In some situations—-e.g., “weed out” courses in a pre-med curriculum—-maybe norm-referenced assessment makes more sense because you do want a grade to tell you where a student ranks against his/her peers.

But if you applied norm-referenced assessment in the language course example, you theoretically could have a situation in which everyone bombs a final exam but some percentage of the students get an A anyway because they were at the top 10-15% of a poorly performing group. In that case, you might be sending people out into the world who got an A in French but can’t successfully order a cup of coffee in that language.

The criterion-referenced approach to grading makes sense if you want people to interpret the grade as some indication of skill. This little discussion may be a bit tangential to the question of whether a D is a useful grade, but I was getting a sense that we were leaving criterion-referenced assessment out of the discussion as a legitimate form of assessment.
Could you please let me know where your heard of this change to the federal program? I spoke with my college's financial aid director. We are a large CC. He knows nothing of the change, and so far, we haven't been able to track it down anywhere.
My nephew took Japanese at a community college when he was 13. It took him most of the quarter to figure out how to handle the course. If he'd flunked, he could have retaken it but because he got a D he was told to move on to the next course, which he knew he was not ready to handle. So he gave up and took a language his high school offered. If he'd known about the policy, he would have mad sure to earn a F.
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