How To Address Failing Grades

Are you curious about how to address students who are failing classes? I have a few suggestions. There is a catch: you must (1) have an open mind, (2) err on the side of common sense, and (3) have the capacity for human decency. If you can check all of those boxes, you’re ready. If not, figure out how to check those boxes before reading further…

In my district, the administration is running rampant trying to figure out how to fix the failure epidemic. About a third of our students are failing and a very high percentage of the failing students are Black. When that information came to my ears, I immediately knew what was wrong and some of what to do to address it. No, I am not a guru, but much of what’s going on is a common sense issue. Of course, alarm bells went off when I heard that the majority of students failing are Black. However, overrepresentation of Black children in failures and discipline is a nationwide issue that has much to do with both a lack of preparation for White teachers to teach Black students and White teachers have lower expectations for Black students. That matters because 80% of teachers in the United States are White.

There are two ways to attack this problem… student failures. This works (I think) for all schools, but I am speaking in an urban education context specifically – and of course, I would… This blog is called the Urban Education Mixtape. You attack this on both a micro-level (what teachers can do) and on a macro level (what administrators can do). Let’s start with what teachers can do:

Micro-Level Fix

  1. Stop Giving Students a Zero for a Grade…Period – Regardless, if the student got everything wrong or did nothing at all… a zero is pointless. It is not a motivator. Considering that many teachers improperly weigh their assignments (I’ll get to that in number 5), it’s hard for a student to come back from that – particularly when a teacher refuses to let a student make up the assignment. The lowest grade I suggest giving is a fifty. A zero and a fifty is still an F. The real difference is that a zero can make a student disengage and no longer care… It’s not because it’s a cultural problem. It’s because you gave the student a zero.
  2. Stop Grading Homework – Newsflash: HOMEWORK IS NOT AN ASSESSMENT, IT IS PRACTICE. First, ask yourself why you give students so much homework and if it’s for practice, then ask yourself why are you grading it? I’ve heard of a practice assessment before, but a practice assessment is not a formal grade. So why would you make homework – if it is practice for the assessment – a formal grading assignment? Stop doing that.
  3. Provide a Rubric for Every Assignment – a rubric for every type of assignment will show students how many tasks they need to complete and how (what they need to do) to obtain a particular score. Show students what they need to do to get the grade that they want and if (for example) they choose to do enough to get a pass, that’s can begin a conversation leading to a teachable moment about mediocrity and students living with the choices they make. Giving students the opportunity to make that choice is better than the student choosing not to do the assignment at all – because with their choice comes responsibility, accountability and the opportunity for you as a teacher to begin a relationship where you become a coach rather than simply remain the giver of a grade.
  4. Provide Multiple Assessments, Not Just Tests and Quizzes – a test is not the best way to necessarily assess what a kid knows. It certainly shouldn’t be the only way you assess a child. You should have essay assignments, class presentations, kinesthetic projects, technology projects i.e. graphic design and video productions… you’ve got to do more in a generation where technology is what captures their attention and gets them excited. A test gets no one excited… you’re certainly not excited to grade them.
  5. Properly Weight Your Assessments – No way should a homework or classwork grade be worth the same thing as a test. If you’re going to grade homework, at least have the human decency to adjust the weights of the assignments to properly reflect what they are. Again, homework is not an assessment… it is practice. Practice is not the same as an assessment. Neither should be a homework assignment be worth the same as a test.

Those are some simple things that teachers can do to help reduce failures to a level that is more accurate. Here are some simple things administrators can do:

Macro-Level Fix

  1. Mandate Mandatory Grading Procedures – if you leave teachers alone, they will teach what they want, assign what they want and grade what they want. No administrator would ever give teachers license to teach outside their age-appropriate content curriculum. Nor would an administrator let teachers just give any kind of assignment to a student… so I wonder why some are shy when it comes to demanding how teachers grade with respect to categories and weights? Set a procedure for grading that properly weighs assignments.
  2. Mandate 50% as the Lowest Grade a Teacher Can Give – As I said earlier, zeros do nothing besides disengage kids and satisfy teachers. Giving a 50% provides students with an opportunity to raise their grade. Three grades of fifty are much better than three zeros. A student can come back from that. If student academic success is the goal, then you should seek only to break a child’s will… not their spirit.
  3. Provide White Teachers With Culturally Responsive Pedagogy Training & Students with Culturally Responsive Curricula – While more teachers of color need to be hired, it doesn’t erase the fact that White teachers overwhelmingly occupy classrooms and those teachers need training on how to teach Black and Brown children. Train those teachers until they are blue in the face on how to get the best out of Black and Brown students academically. The ones who don’t want it will eventually leave. Replace them with teachers of color. Also, provide students with a culturally responsive curriculum in literacy, social studies, science, and mathematics… and with other content areas, rather than continuing to teach from a Eurocentric point of view, you should teach from a view representative of a diverse student body – whether or not your student body is diverse.
  4. Hire More Teachers of Color – I cannot stress this point enough. Again, 80% of all teachers in the United States are White. The research proves that Black teachers are needed. Math and reading achievement is significantly positively influenced by the race/ethnicity of their teacher; for Black students, the impacts are larger in math than in reading. Black students are more likely to be identified as bright and recommended to gifted and talented classrooms when taught by a Black teacher. When a Black student has a Black teacher that teacher is much, much less likely to see behavioral problems than when the same Black student has a White teacher. Black students are more likely to graduate from high school and express interest in attending college if they’ve had at least one Black teacher versus Black students who have never had a Black teacher. A Johns Hopkins University study found that when a White teacher and a Black teacher consider the same Black student, the white teacher is 30 percent less likely to think the student will graduate from a four-year college; White teachers are nearly 40 percent less likely to think their Black students will graduate from high school. Hire more teachers of color.
  5. Stop Over Disciplining Students of Color – According to the U.S. Department of Education Division for Civil Rights, nationally: Black students are suspended and expelled at a rate three times greater than White students. On average, 5% of White students are suspended, compared to 16% of Black students. While boys receive more than two out of three suspensions, Black girls are suspended at higher rates (12%) than girls of any other race or ethnicity and most boys. While Black students represent 16% of student enrollment, they represent 27% of students referred to law enforcement and 31% of students subjected to a school-related arrest. In comparison, white students represent 51% of enrollment, 41% of students referred to law enforcement, and 39% of those arrested. You know where kids are when they are suspended? Right, they’re not in school. That means they’re not in the classroom so they’re missing instructional time. 
    Civil Rights Data Collection Discipline

    Someone may argue that you can give the suspended students some work to do… the chances of that work being done at a level of academic attentiveness are slim. I hear too much of “no-excuses,” or “zero-tolerance,” and not enough “restorative justice.” Newsflash: NO-EXCUSES AND ZERO-TOLERANCE POLICIES ARE WHY STUDENTS OF COLOR, PARTICULARLY BLACK CHILDREN, ARE OVERLY DISCIPLINED. Combine these policies with the overwhelming number of White teachers who may have problems of cultural mismatch and you have a disaster. However, if more schools tried to integrate restorative justice practices, I believe they’d see a difference in their discipline statistics and student academic performance. It is hard work, but restorative justice can work if there is a commitment from the school community to make it happen. It’s a better alternative compared to just suspending kids.

Students will struggle. Educators struggle… It is inevitable. However, the struggle is necessary to grow and even if teachers and administrators are ready to implement these changes, there will be a struggle. However, educators (and their students) have the ability to rise to the occasion to overcome adversity. Educators have the ability to decide if a failing grade is a matter of process or progress. If teaching and learning is about a process and not one’s progress, you may want to reconsider your philosophy of education. Education is not about fitting a square peg in a triangular hole. Rather, education is about developing a square hole where there wasn’t one.

Let’s continue to press towards the mark!


2 thoughts on “How To Address Failing Grades

  1. Informative article. Technology is now infused in education, and perhaps a massive change is about to ensue, making learning more engaging, motivating, personal and effective. This can help solve the problem of demotivation and failure in the classroom.


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