Should We Have D’s?

Georgia did away with the D in its public schools a long time ago.  The reason I know this is that when I moved to Georgia as a junior in high school, which was almost exactly twenty years ago, I had a D in biology on my transcript, and my counselor explained that because it was a passing grade where I came from, the Georgia school to which I was transferring would consider it a passing grade; however, he let me know that grades below 70 were failing grades in Georgia.  I guess that means if you go by the old dictum that A’s are excellent, B’s are above average, C’s are average, and F’s are failing, then in Georgia, you drop from average work to failing work if you find yourself on the other side of that 70.

Private schools, however, are free to retain the D, and my school uses the A-F +/- grading scale.  I have to say that having worked with both scales, I believe the D has merit.  There is a gap between average performance and failing performance, and I think the D serves that gap well.  Below average.  The warning before you fail.  The impetus to do better.  It’s a nice cushion for the students, and I think it might prevent grade inflation.  I am almost sure a chemistry teacher in high school gave me a 70 I didn’t earn because I worked hard, was generally quiet, and turned in all my assignments.  I just had a very hard time with the subject.  I can’t really say my knowledge of chemistry was average as high school student.  It was probably below average.  Maybe it’s just me, but I see a difference between doing average work and doing failing work.

What do you think, though?  Do D’s serve a purpose?  Is Georgia wrong to delete the D?

27 thoughts on “Should We Have D’s?”

  1. Having just received a D on an incredibly difficult test, I am grateful that my college still uses the letter. Like you, I think that there's a definite gap between "average" and "failure," and on this particular test (an extremely detailed History of the English Language course) I was both disappointed in myself and relieved–should have done better, but I didn't get an F.

    (longtime reader, first time commenter)

  2. Hi Dana-

    Ironically, I caught your tweet pointing me to this post in the same thread where a conversation was taking place regarding assessment vs. grading vs. learning.

    I think this is such an important conversation, and I'm not sure, I guess, if a D has merit or if any other grade does at this point. Unless grading practices are consistent and grades mean the same thing wherever you go, I wonder if it's possible for grades to have any real meaning. Also, @datadiva raised another important point by sharing the essential question that guides her work with the rest of us: is it possible to quantify learning? No answers. Just questions. And I thought your post was a nice extension of the thinking that was triggered on Twitter this morning.

  3. I teach elementary school, and we don't have a D or an F–just an N for "needs improvement. " I hate giving a kid who didn't even try and has an average of 30% the same grade as the kid who just barely missed a C. So yes, I wish we had both.

  4. I have mixed feelings as many here.

    First, unless a department, a school, or even a district is using the SAME rubric for similar assignments, then grades are so subjective. I teach English, the must subjective out there. If all the English teachers in my program agreed to use the same rubrics for all writing assignments, and the same for projects, posters, etc. only then can we really see a student's progress. I work in an SLC and of the three English teachers, I am the "hard" one, the "strict" one. This makes me crack up every time a student or fellow teacher mentions it. So, if we don't all have the same grading scale then my C might be someone else's B or even low A. If we don't give similar assignments or at least have common assessments that are more heavily weighed into the overall grade of all similar classes, then there is no way for ANY grade to really have value except in the microcosm of that one class.

    NOW…at the same time, I hate D's. D's are not accepted by universities and as I tell my students, "should not be acceptable to you". All a D does, imho, is let the kid "pass" with below par skills which only sets them up to struggle with any higher level courses. Yes, I give LOTS of D's and the sad thing is, I know my students aren't just getting one or two, which indicates they aren't immediately, if ever, college bound. Isn't this what my goal is? To prep them for college or at least some sort of post-high school academic program?

  5. In Fulton County, the GPA is out of 100, so the letter grade didn't matter. A 70 was going to look worse than a 79, even though they were both C's. I think that kind of eliminates that need for letter scales, in general.

    In Cobb, I don't know what they do generally, but at my school (a public charter school), we do have D's. 70-73 is D, and 74-79 is C. Since the GPA is out of 4, I do like having that D: "Your student shouldn't fail because they worked in my class; however they may not have mastered the material enough to pass the Graduation Test, and don't say I didn't warn you…"

  6. Adrienne, I think all of Georgia has 100-point scale. Gwinnett does the fake D thing, too. What I mean by that is it's not really a D if you're just lopping off the bottom of a C-range, and I think it's not a good idea to shorten the scale unless you are going to adopt a different scale across the board (such as a 7-point scale). And you're right, a 70 will be different from a 79 with a numerical scale. Different weights are given to letter grades when you use the +/- system like my school does, so a C+ is weighted higher than a C- (which is what a 79 and 70 would be, respectively).

  7. I think the whole way we conceive of grades — even the existence of grades themselves — needs rethinking, but within the system we now have, the D has a role to play, and both students and teachers need it.

    Others have given good reasons for this, but I'd add that on the college level, at least at my college, students who are taking a class that's required for a degree must make a C- or higher to "pass". Others can pass with a D-. So we expect more from a math or economics major in a calculus course than we do somebody who's just taking it for gen ed credit. It's a nice way to send a message about academic standards.

  8. I believe in D's. I believe that D can indicate that a student has a tolerable ability in this discipline. It's not average, but the student might be able to work hard enough at it to get by.

    In my own school, we currently have an after school intervention program for all students who are currently failing (grading checks every three weeks). The administration wanted to up that to include all of the D students, but the teachers all spoke up to defend the D student and they were spared the after school program. So, yes, I think Georgia is wrong to "delete the D".

    1. I am finding the comments interesting. Like Tamara and Chris, I don't want students to settle for the D (I think that's what you two were saying, but jump in and correct me if I'm wrong). On the other hand, it looks like most everyone sees that D's serve a valuable purpose — so much so that some school systems in Georgia try to circumvent the below 70 is failing rule by lopping off part of the C-range in order to have D's. I hadn't thought about that before, even after working in Gwinnett, a local system that has a D at 70-73 on the scale, but it seems even some of the school systems in Georgia are saying they need D's.

      Robert, I totally agree with you, and it's an issue that is very important to me — something I've written about a lot in the past and honestly something I have seriously considered writing a book about (you know, in my spare time 😉 ). I like the idea that if it's your area of concentration, you are held to a higher standard for passing. My major GPA was higher than my overall GPA, and I was always sure to put that on my resume so that prospective employers would know I did well in my major area. It makes a difference to have subject matter experts who have proven to be good students of the material they will be using most in their future careers.

  9. I like the D. I hate having to give the same grade to students who don't show up, don't do the work and generally don't care (F) as I give to the student who just does not get it. They try. They hand in every assignment (several drafts) but they just do not reach the goal (in Sweden we have a goal oriented syllabus). They haven't reached where they should be but they sure have tried. To equate them with those who haven't tried isn't fair with anyone.

  10. That's really interesting and I'd never heard of not having a D as an option. We have them but grades below 70 are still an F. A D is anything from a 70 to a 75 here.

  11. Grades:

    As a high school teacher of mathematics I think that not only grades but also grade levels (K-12) in the traditional sense should be abolished.

    What should replace traditional grades and grade levels is a Standards Based Assessments System (SBAS) based on a Curriculum developed using Understanding by Design principals where the student moves ahead based on demonstrated competence and not simply time spent in a classroom warming a seat.

    The SBAS changes the focus from an artificial/arbitrary number/letter and grade level to what THE STUDENT can actually demonstrate as KNOWING and BEING ABLE TO DO. The SB Assessments (SBAs) must have an unambiguous rubric from 0-4 which give clear and understandable information as to what each student must master in each standard. The SBAs provide everyone involved in the student's learning – student, teacher, parent – information as to exactly what a student needs to do in order to increase his/her level of mastery. The burden of "grades" is shifted from the teacher to the student who is the one responsible to demonstrate his/her level of LEARNING.

    To satisfy the bureaucratic requirement for traditional grades one can simply equate the 4 thru O scale to A thru F where A=4 and F=O. Adjustment can be made for AP and Honors classes by extending the rubric to reflect a level 5 for Honors and Level 6 for AP. An alternative for the AP and Honors classes is for the rubric to simply have a scale of 6 thru 2.

    In the current system students do NOT have OWNERSHIP of their learning and thus feel that it is the teacher who gives them the grade rather than the student having to earn the grade. Under the SBAS each student is responsible for his/her learning with clearcut guidelines where the only role that "working hard" plays is the extra effort and time that a student has to exert/invest in order to LEARN the concept/s that other students may master with less effort and in less time.

    We all know and support that "Each student CAN learn!" but what is always left unsaid is "Given motivation, desire to learn, sufficient time, and additional requisite and competent instruction.

    A SBAS goes a long way to accomplishing this and revises the tenet to "Each child not only can learn but also will not be left behind."

  12. I should have proof read before posting. Please excuse the typos. eg. pricipals shold be principles.

    For you fans of the English language: How do you pronounce = GHOTI?

  13. After reading your article in my email, Dana , I was curious about how many states have standardized grading scales and what they are. A Google search, though, was not especially fruitful.

    It seems that many states (Georgia, Florida, West Virginia, to name a few) have statewide scales, and many others have considered going to this. A number of states, too, have revised the old A-F-minus-E system.

    But I suppose the comprehensive nationwide charts I was looking for are in your yet-to-be-written book. 😉

  14. I was going to make a correction, but someone beat me to it. I graduated from Lithonia High School (about 15 miles due east of Atlanta) in 1993 and we did indeed have the "D", although it's what what you refer to as "the fake D": 70-73. 74-82 was a "C"; 83-91 a "B"; 92-100 an "A"… I still remember this because even as a teenager I thought it was silly. On more than one occasion I got a final term grade of 91 which enraged me because it only counted as a B– and thus only 3 points– in the GPA (if it were an AP class it would get one more point, but still).

    I believe Georgia schools as a whole went to a numerical, 100-point scale because of the HOPE scholarship. Originally one needed a 3.0 GPA in HS to qualify, but it was discovered that because of scales like these, a 3.0 didn't mean the same thing in all high schools. So they changed it to be 80% instead of 3.0 (although that would be a C on our scale).

    I now teach in Colorado and we have the straight "decade" scale: 90s=A, 80s=B, 70s=C, and 60s=D. Actually, Infinite Campus only requires the average to reach 59.5 and it will round up to display a D- That's not much, I don't think… accumulate only a little over half the possible points and you pass the class? Passing becomes as simple as just turning in all the work– as most teachers I know (well, me anyway) give some "completion" grades, where you get all the points if you just show you did the assignment.

    That being said, I think 70% is a fairly high bar for passing. I would especially worry about it 9th grade, where I hear all the research says just one failing grade exponentially increases the likelihood of a student eventually dropping out.

  15. I'm a little confused. Did they fully eliminate Ds, or is the key difference that you need a 70 to pass? I teach in a district in NJ in which a passing grade is 70, but we have a D. The whole scale is just shifted up: 93-100 is an A (instead of 90-100), 85-92 is a B, etc., all the way down to 70-77 = D. So we have both Ds and the need to reach 70 to pass.

    Doesn't eliminate the problem of numeric grades in the grand scheme of things. Just a point of confusion.

    1. Essentially, the state made 70 the lowest passing grade. Some systems in Georgia eliminated the D altogether, while others made the C-range shorter and made 70-73 a D. It sounds like your scale is another common type of grading scale — the 7-point scale. I went to a middle school with a 7-point scale.

    1. No, Neutrino, we're all talking about a grading system that you might not necessarily intuit unless you're American. The grade scale in common use in the USA is A for excellent, B for above average, C for average, D for below average, and F for failing. The E is left out. I think it may be that we don't want to confuse anyone because in some grading systems, we also have E for excellent, S for satisfactory, and N for needs improvement (usually in the lower grades such as kindergarten or first grade). I think the E was then removed from the letter scale to avoid confusion about whether it was Excellent (which it clearly wouldn't be, if it were below D). Also, the F makes a nice mnemonic for "failing."

  16. Wally–You bring up an interesting point. Standards based grading would allow us to grade for mastery rather than for homework completion (homework completion and lack of mastery is typically where my D students, like Steffanie's, fall). Although with SBG grades would be more reflective of ability, I worry about the kids who learn that turning in nothing is acceptable–they won't be able to say to a boss one day that although they know "how" do to their job, they just don't want to "do" it. I wonder if adopting some sort of two-part grading system might be possible: one that reflects both effort and achievement.

  17. Does any school employ standards based grading? I think I would love to teach at such a school.

  18. Hi Deb:

    The ENTIRE Adams50 SD in Colorado (vicinity of Denver) is going to SBE. Go to their website for more details:
    It appears as though their elementary and possibly middle schools are SBE now with their high schools by 2010. Instead of grades (K-12 not A-D 🙂 they have levels where students advance to the next level when they are ready – whatever that means. I've sent e-mails to the SD and a HS principal but nary a reply.

    My daughter lives in Fort Collins so when I visit her over Easter Break (they have a Spring Break the end of March) I'll simply drop by and see what happens.

    They got the idea from a SD in Alaska. The Superintendent of the Alaska SD is now a consultant.

    Maybe I'll wind up as a consultant.

    Nobody has responded yet as to the pronunciation of: ghoti

    Hope this helped.



  19. Erin:

    In my opinion the best way to get around the effort 'problem' and turning things in on time is to:

    1. include several projects as part of project-based-learning spaced throughout the semester/year with hard drop dead dates;

    2. include WebQuests with hard drop dead dates.

    Both of these are graded by a pre-established rubric. The rubric can be constructed so that, on a scale of 0-4, a 3 or 4 equates to mastery. Anything below a 3 is a redo.

    In my thinking, alternating between Project and WebQuest with one or the other due every 2 weeks with a 1-week break in between. (We teachers need that time to evaluate the students' work.)

    Your thoughts?


  20. I am still just a student, but I hope to be a teacher some day! I have to agree that any grading scale should not jump down directly from what is considered average to failing. I absolutely do not have an answer to the grading system problems, but I think it does need some revision overall. Even the grade "c" has come to be something that is not considered average but rather some see the c student as lazy and barely getting by. But I thought c was average. Just some food for thought.

  21. Wally, I somehow wonder if you have had a major part in designing these types of grading systems. I myself, as a parent, who has experienced it first hand, hate them. And here is why:

    This year the schools in our area decided to implement the Rubric Scale Grading System. My two sons (both have ADHD) have gone from A & B's (in fact my oldest had 4.0's last year) to anything from a 1 to a 3 on the rubric scale. I have noticed my children have decreased motivation to excel scholastically. They tell me they understand the concepts and that is all that is required of them. I've also noticed that teachers are not consistent with their rubric scoring causing more confusion and frustration with the whole system. In my opinion this grading system is the State's way of supporting the ridiculous "No Child Left Behind" theory… in essence trying to make it appear successful. However as most people are aware, there is a wide range of educational differences. Children learn at different speeds and levels because they all have different mental capacities. Furthermore, this system does not take into consideration outside circumstances such as learning disabilities, academically gifted students, and those who understand concepts as shown on their homework, but do not test well.

    I disagree with this rubric grading system for many different reasons:

    First, I think that it creates an embrace of mediocrity. We no longer inspire children to enjoy or excel in the talents that they have been blessed with. Instead, we are swaying them to sit back, relax and become lackadaisical while educators try to bring everyone up to par. The traditional grading system persuades the more scholarly student to learn and progress at a more individually specific and suitable pace. Whereas with the rubric system influences those same students to become bored or apathetic with their educational progression.

    Second, it seems wasteful, costly, and futile to change the grading system when most colleges, parents, employers, etc. will be converting the rubric into a percentage which is then converted into a grade anyhow.

    Lastly, although this rubric grading system brings the lower grading children up to the mediocre level that the system strives to place everyone, making it appear as if “no child is left behind”. It also swings the pendulum the other way. The more advanced children are now left behind, not getting the education or progressing at the level or speed they are capable of. With the traditional system an A or B may be one student’s best, while a C or D may be another student’s best. Still, ideally each student is striving for their best whichever grade that may be.

  22. On Mar 15 I posted that I hadn't received a reply from the Adams50 SD regarding my request to visit.

    Well I'm happy to report that they not only responded but received me with warm professional hospitality. I spent almost 3 hours with them. Dr. Copper Stoll, their Chief Academic Officer, briefed me on what they are doing from a district perspective and informed me that they are hosting a SBE Symposium 24-26 June, 2009. Anyone interested in more information may go to their website at:

    Their Director of Academic Services, Art Drotar, gave me a more in depth briefing on what they are doing with respect to mathematics. I then spent time with a high school teacher who is working with elementary and middle school teachers in developing a comprehensive and coherent mathematics curriculum for the district. Since I teach Algebra we then focused in on the details of students learning Algebra in a SBE classroom.

    I extend a huge THANK YOU to everyone that I met at Adams5o SD and wish them success in paving the way for their District-wide SBE initiative.

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