Should 50 be the new zero?

Report Card

A few years ago, the school in which I was teaching changed their grading practices so that no student could make less than 50 for each grading period.  The theory behind this was to prevent a student’s grade from getting so low in the first half of the year that he or she could not pull it up in the second half.  My first thought was what to do with the students who chose to do nothing in class.  Was I to just give them a 50 though they did zero work?   The school had already gone to a ten point scale on which a 60 was considered passing.  At this too, I was disappointed.  In a staff meeting at the beginning of the year my school changed to a 10 point scale, the administration told the teachers to increase the rigor in the classroom if they thought the 10 point scale was too lenient.  My concern to this was just how many teachers would change their teaching strategies to increase rigor.   Another concern was that now the students who wanted only a 69.5 would lower their goal to a 59.5.  This would only be 9.5 points above the new zero.

The 50 as the new zero hit me where it really hurt this past year.  My grandson was in first grade at a school that worked on the old grading scale in which students had to earn a 70 to pass.  At this school students made what the teachers deemed they earned even if it were a zero.  My grandson is a victim of divorce and lives with his mother.  She and her present husband have other children, and both work.  They had little time to help my first grader.  By the time they decided to let me tutor him, his grades had dropped significantly.  He struggled in kindergarten and had little preschool preparation, so he was behind.  After I began tutoring him, he made A’s and B’s and met his Accelerated Reader and Accelerated Math goals.  However, with these great achievements, he still had a 68 end-of-year average in English; so he failed first grade.  Was it my grandson’s fault that he had little preschool preparation?  Was it his fault that he had little help with homework?  Should the teachers have failed him with such good improvement?  Since he can now do first grade work, will he be bored this year?

Some teachers may think that by raising the zero to a 50 parents and students will view them as lowering expectations for students.  I was such a teacher.  However, now I think about our society and what many of today’s children must face.  How does it affect a student at any age when his or parents divorce, a parent dies, the mother has never been married and is having to work two or three jobs, or both parents are working two jobs?  Should schools punish children for not performing to their potential when it is not their fault, or should schools give these children a chance?  These are especially important questions at the elementary and middle school grades.  These children are at the mercies of the situations in which the parents find themselves.  If parents cannot be there to help with homework, what is an underperforming first grader to do?  Young children cannot drive; so if they often arrive at school late or are absent too many times, is it the children’s fault?  Should their chances of success be removed even when their situations improve?

Each time a child fails at the elementary level his or her chances of graduating decrease significantly.  According to The Scarring Effects of Primary-Grade Retention? A Study of Cumulative Advantage in the Educational Career,  a child that is retained at the primary level has a 60% chance of graduating from high school.  As a high school teacher, I fully understand the significant impact at the high school level of student retention in the early grades.

So, are schools that move to the new zero lowering their expectations or giving students a chance?