Several teachers whom I spoke with or who responded to my questionnaire mentioned policies stating that students cannot get lower than a 50 percent on any assignment, even if the work was never done, in some cases. A teacher from Chapel Hill, N.C., who filled in the questionnaire’s “name” field with “No, no, no,” said the 50 percent floor and “NO attendance enforcement” leads to a scenario where “we get students who skip over 100 days, have a 50 percent, complete a couple of assignments to tip over into 59.5 percent and then pass.”
It’s hard to find national data about how widespread this kind of 50 percent rule is (and the experts I spoke with said they didn’t know of anyone who was systematically collecting this information). But policies like this have been adopted by districts from Washington, D.C., to Boise, Idaho. Jay Matthews, The Washington Post’s education columnist, has written about the trend toward easing grading and assignments, calling it “the most divisive educational issue in the country” that we’re not hearing enough about.
When I followed up with Russell, the high school teacher, over the phone, he said of his students, “Even if they plagiarize or cheat on something, well, it’s a 50 percent.” If they get two out of 10 on a quiz, he said, that’s automatically bumped up to a five out of 10. He said grades are no longer tied to attendance, and that grading quarters are merged, so some students “quickly found that if they could have a passing grade in the first one or two quarters, they could just stop coming to school.”
Laura Warren is a middle-school reading specialist who taught in rural Virginia and suburban Massachusetts before she retired in June. In Massachusetts, she said, her school had adopted a 50 percent policy. Over the phone, she told me, “I see the good in it because you want a kid to be able to dig themself out of a hole, but then again, you didn’t do an assignment. You didn’t do a whole assignment. And should you be getting a 50 for that?”
Warren also told me that in her relatively affluent Massachusetts district, parents were hyper-focused on grades and frequently pushed back when they weren’t happy, which led to many teachers playing it safe because they didn’t want the agita, including possible escalation to the principal. “Tests could be retaken and assignments perfected. No failing grades. If teachers are conscientious, this creates an enormous amount of work. If teachers are not conscientious, kids are just sliding by,” she wrote in the questionnaire. “Teachers know it, and kids know it.”