Why do we fail so many students?

This will be one of my shortest posts yet.  It is New Year’s Eve, and I plan to spend the remaining 2 hours until the New Year with my family, and away from my MacBook.

However, I feel compelled to pose the question in the title of this post before doing so.

Why do we fail so many students?

I hope a rich, diverse, and, respectful discourse results from this post, perhaps after the New Year settles in more.  I may need to retweet it later, too.  But in the hopes that it catches someone’s attention tonight, I pose the question above.

As some context for the question, the following two tables contrast the distribution of grades I plan to assign to my 96 algebra 1 students for this past semester using the grading system I describe in an earlier post with that which they would be assigned had I used a “traditional” grading system that has the following two, primary characteristics:

1)  30% of the semester grade comes from assignments such as classwork, homework, and such, and the balance of 70% comes from assessments to include any final exam, and

2) letter grades are determined using the following scale:

  • A:  90-100%
  • B:  80-89%
  • C:  70-79%
  • D:  60-69%
  • F: <60%


Pay special attention to the grouped percentages for grades of C and higher, and their complement for D and F grades.

  • Aside from the coincidence in the digits themselves, what stands out to you?
    • And why?
  • Why do you think this disparity exists?
    • What might the causes be?
  • How much influence do we, as teachers, have over these outcomes?
  • What data might be missing to support this comparison?
  • What suggestions do you have?
  • Why do most grading scales adhere to the cut scores shown above?
    • What are the historical, social, mathematical, or other bases for those cut scores?
    • What should we use as fair and reasonable cut scores?

By the way, Happy New Year, especially if you are reading this on December 31, 2011.

Table 1:  Grade Distribution Using My “Final Grading System”

Table 2:  Grade Distribution if Using a “Traditional Grading System”

About Dave aka Mr. Math Teacher

Independent consultant and junior college adjunct instructor. Former secondary math teacher who taught math intervention, algebra 1, geometry, accelerated algebra 2, precalculus, honors precalculus, AP Calculus AB, and AP Statistics. Prior to teaching, I spent 25 years in high tech in engineering, marketing, sales and business development roles in the satellite communications, GPS, semiconductor, and wireless industries. I am awed by the potential in our nation's youth and I hope to instill in them the passion to improve our world at local, state, national, and global levels.
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3 Responses to Why do we fail so many students?

  1. Mike says:

    The cut scores are fairly meaningless. Teachers generally manipulate the difficulty and quantity of test questions and assignments to achieve their desired distribution of grades. The desired distribution is usually something more like your final grading system (which has been explicitly manipulated to achieve your desired distribution).

    This is one reason that grades are not that meaningful. They only serve to give a rough approximation of relative achievement within a class, but no one cares about the relative position of students in your class. Grades are really only useful if they give people some idea of the position of students relative to others in the state or nation, or relative to some fixed set of standards.


    • Thanks for your comment, Mike. I agree that I manipulated my grading system to achieve a distribution (of sorts) that I feel more appropriately represents students performance with respect to a set of standards. I believe that is what grades should represent, versus the abstract, and too narrowly constrained, A-F labels. I also created tests, aligned to the standards, that I felt students who knew the material could easily pass. What I found though was that if I used the traditional scale as the measuring stick, way too many were deemed “failures,” without any meaningful statements of why or in what way, whereas with the system I created, they could see that they at least demonstrated some ability, and were recognized for same.

      I checked out your blog, and about you. I look forward to following you, and your efforts teaching math. Good for you for serving our country in so many ways!


  2. Renee says:

    An important question that we don’t ask ourselves often enough. Our grading scales are actually designed to reward only a very few for success. I agree with Mike on the point that grades alone are fairly useless unless they are tied to some sort of performance standard (e.g., an “A” means student can do this and this..at a specific level of proficiency–usually tied to some kind of example of what that is). Since most grading scales don’t do that what are we really saying.

    English teachers at the community college where I work had to connect our grades to a performance rubric. Interestingly, as we compare our work, some teachers still manipulate the scale so that the one or two parts of the rubric that are most important to them are weighted more heavily. Defeats the purpose of setting up the standards, but then others argue that linking grades to standards limits academic freedom.


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