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?