Out of my student population of 155, I failed three Algebra II students. I gave another nine students Ds, three of them in geometry and the rest in Algebra 2.

For a school like the one I just left, these are utterly bizarro stats. Math teachers in Title I comprehensive high schools have generally brutal failure rates. Last year, I taught Algebra I, and my D/F rate for Hispanics was 31%, the third lowest of all math teachers and the second lowest in Algebra I. My overall DF rate was about 25%, giving me the second lowest white/Hispanic D/F gap as well. The highest Hispanic math fail rates were 80%. This year, the school didn’t publish the stats, but I would have been the lowest.

My lower fail rate had nothing to do with a change in policy. I tell my students at the beginning of the year that they need to do one of two things to pass: work hard, or demonstrate ability. Work hard, I won’t guarantee anything more than a D, but that’s still a passing grade. Show me you know how to do the work, and I don’t care if you have spent the entire semester throwing rulers and gum, I’ll pass you based on the demonstrated ability.

But as I’ve written before, low ability algebra I students have no skin in the game. The classes have sophomores that are just waiting out the clock to alternative school, and freshmen who don’t see how much crap they are adding to their lives by flunking it the first time—after all, they have the failed sophomores in their classes as a shining example. Which is why I think sophomores who fail algebra should be put into an entirely different class, all by themselves, in order to reduce “pollution”.

But geometry and algebra 2 students can see that light out there, distant, signaling the tunnel’s end. When I say “work hard and you’ll pass”, that has real meaning to a number of low ability kids who have made it this far. When I talk about college placement tests and the impact it will have on their first year, I have a very interested audience.

And so, my 8% D-F rate.

Every time I say this, it kills me to admit it: I am a holistic grader. I set my grading scale to reflect 80% test score, add classwork scores daily to indicate effort to any interested parents, and periodically adjust the grades, dropping low scores or looking suspiciously at high scores that seem out of whack with my perception of ability and effort. I will randomly give a kid a D on progress reports if he hasn’t been working, just to alert the parents of the bad news that’s coming.

No slave to numbers, I.

The cool thing is at the end of the year, when everyone else is grading and calibrating, I’m mostly done. I always have about 8-10 kids that I have to mull over on the borderline–and in almost every case, I tilt up, not down. And every so often there’s a kid who makes an effective last minute appeal. This year, a student who I was certain was getting a B+ told me about an unfair English grade that was just going to kill her GPA, and begged me to “mull it over” (even used those words, the clever kid, having noticed my fondness for the word). I did, and realized that 88.5 to 90 wasn’t an unmanageable jump. This pulled in another student with an identical score. I really should have been paying closer attention to them anyway, to see if I could get them over the hump.

So end of year grading is not the big hassle for me that it is for everyone else.

Grades are a fraud anyway. Somewhere in a high-income suburb, a kid who actually understands second year Algebra, matrices, vectors, logs, and all, is getting a C for not doing his homework. Still other kids are getting As for doing homework, in AP Calculus no less, despite having weaker abilities than some of my students.

Do I pass too many students? For me, it’s a simple equation. The kids have no choice as to their math class. Around 80% of my Algebra II students had scored below basic or lower on their Algebra I state test. How is it fair to hold them to any real standard of actual second year algebra? What is left to grade for at the bottom, other than effort? The kids who got C or higher in my classes worked and learned a lot of math. The D kids goofed around but straightened out when they realized they were at risk of failing. That’s good enough for me.

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