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Class Notes
Pass or fail? How a teacher decides
(Published May 16, 2005)


With six weeks to go in the school year, it's crunch time for students and decision time for teachers.

There are kids that teachers don't worry about, the kids who've gotten A's and B's and are sure bets to pass. There are kids who checked out after the first advisory, and now, after 20 weeks of second chances, phone calls and parent conferences, have made it clear that not only won't they pass, they're not interested in pretending. I have students who've been absent or truant 10 or more times in the last four weeks. We'll rarely see them this year, and it's a crap shoot for the next.

This time of year, the struggle is for the hearts of the couple of kids in every class who are on the edge, and might still go either way -- kids who have probably failed an advisory or two, but are still coming to school and are still trying to follow along in class. It's what to do if they almost get it together that's the hardest thing.

Research studies have shown that for kids who don't quite make the standard, neither social promotion nor failing a kid is the answer. Passing kids who didn't learn the necessary skills is setting them up for future failure. Either they fail the next class, or, worse, graduate with a diploma but no skills. They become kids betrayed by an education of low standards; the kids who've done what was asked of them to pass and earn a high school credential, only to find that what we asked of them was so little that they are unprepared for both college and the job market.

Promotion without learning is not an answer. Unfortunately, neither is failing kids who haven't learned what is necessary, as kids who are failed drop out in mind-boggling numbers. You see this in D.C., with 300-person freshman classes and 120-person senior classes at more than a few high schools.

Many kids in D.C. public schools start 9th grade behind below grade level in reading and math, with big holes in their basic skills. I've stopped being astonished when kids don't know that 0.50 and 0.05 are two different numbers. I've learned that in 10th grade, I will have to explain why ½ plus ¼ is 0.75, and that 32 is not 6. This is just a fact of teaching in D.C.

Among high school teachers, one theory about why this happens is that kids are passed out of middle school even if they didn't actually pass their classes. Another, more charitable middle school theory is that kids are poorly prepared in elementary school for middle school work, and, while making gains, are still behind by the time they finish high school, yet could not be failed by their middle school teachers for making strong yearly progress from a low base.

I don't have evidence to back up either theory. What I have observed is that the longer kids are in D.C. public schools, the worse they compare to students across the country and internationally on standardized tests. What I also see at my school, with a relatively high percentage of immigrants, is that it's not just English as a Second Language students who have trouble reading and writing, and often our immigrants far outshine D.C.-born-and-raised kids in mathematics. This is most definitely not because D.C. kids are in any way inferior to other children. It's because the D.C. public school system is not getting the job done.

I'm proud to be part of D.C. Public Schools. I love my city and I think that free, public education is a right for all children. I've written many times, and I'll repeat here, that I feel that my kids are smart, curious, funny and well-deserving of a quality education. I've also often heard from non-teachers that if they were to teach, they'd like to teach younger kids, because with the elementary school kids, there's still a chance to make a difference. I find that kind of talk foolish I feel like I can make a difference and I can help most, if not all, of my kids learn what they need to learn.

That's why this time of year I struggle with how to grade my kids. If I pass a kid who didn't learn "enough," I worry that the bright but lazy kids will learn that you don't really have to do the work in order to pass, and the eager but confused kids will learn that it's OK to really not understand, because you can get through the class anyway. If I fail kids, I risk never seeing them again, and their chances of going to college dwindle to near zero. In many respects, it's better for me as a teacher to pass them on, knowing that when they get to college they can take remedial classes (for cost but no credit). I, however, feel strongly that if they didn't demonstrate that they learned the material, they should fail, and each year I grimly fail about 30 percent of my students.

I'm pretty confident I know what "enough" is in my subject area. In Algebra I, can they solve an equation, graph a function, find the slope of a line, solve a system of equations? In Algebra II, can they use the quadratic formula, model exponential growth, explain what x-intercepts mean in real world situations? I also know that I'm not passing "enough." Out of the 30 percent who fail, only a few will take summer school, and, of the rest, only a few will press on to graduation. I don't consider myself a particularly tough grader or even a tough teacher. I wonder if how I'm grading overall is helping kids. Also, like every other D.C. teacher, I'm waiting in suspense for our standardized test results to come out at the end of June to let us know how our kids fared a process that seems completely disconnected from the daily reality of the classroom.

The role of gatekeeper is not one I'd choose for myself. I'd like to pass 100 percent of my kids, but, by the same token, I'd rather give failing grades to the kids who don't meet my standards than fail them by letting them go by -- ignorant, uncomprehending and unprepared. So I ask you, when you think of the 59 percent student, the kid who has learned more than half but less than a D, what would you choose?


Wennersten teaches mathematics at Bell Multicultural High School in Columbia Heights and a graduate of the D.C. Teaching Fellows program ( Please send stories, comments or questions to

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