# “Only in education,” part two.

Evidently several school districts are moving to the “Minimum 50” grading system, in which the lowest possible grade on an assignment is 50%. The first quote in the article is perhaps the most egregious:

“It’s a classic mathematical dilemma: that the students have a six times greater chance of getting an F,” says Douglas Reeves, founder of The Leadership and Learning Center, a Colorado-based educational think tank who has written on the topic.

He’s referring to the common grading system that has ten-point increments for each letter grade except F’s, which are given for grades under 60%. The problem with his statement is that grades are not randomly distributed. If they were, over half the students would fail the vast majority of classes. This particular gentleman should probably not be running this particular think tank.

This topic came up during a seminar I had to attend earlier in the school year. The speaker at the seminar claimed that because a grade of zero did so much damage to grade averages, students who earned zeroes were likely to do nothing until the next grading period. Therefore, he argued, grading systems need to be redesigned to encourage (or perhaps “to not discourage”) kids who earn zeroes or other low F’s to keep learning. We then had to propose new grading systems. Short version: most of them had the same effect as making 50% the minimum F.

The problem with making 50% the lowest possible F is that it treats the kid who answered half of the questions correctly exactly the same as the kid who answered none of the questions correctly, or none of them at all. Talk about a disincentive to learning–under the minimum 50 system, if I think the best I can do on a given test is a 50%, I may as well leave the test blank and go to sleep.

The usual system (an F for anything under 60%) may discourage those kids who earn zeroes on tests from learning for the rest of the grading period—but the difficulty of recovering from those zeroes also discourages them from earning zeroes in the first place.

Here’s another gem from the article:

A top proponent of the minimum-50 policy, Thomas Guskey for Georgetown College in Kentucky, acknowledges that there are no studies he knows of that examine whether such approaches increase passing rates. [Emphasis added.]