I hate Ds. They’re like kissing your sibling: They meet minimum criteria, but they don’t mean much and they aren’t any fun.

I hate Ds. They’re like kissing your sibling: They meet minimum criteria, but they don’t mean much, and they aren’t any fun.

Picture this conversation between two adolescents:

“Hey, have you ever kissed anyone?”
“Yeah, I give my sister a kiss when she comes home from college.”
“That doesn’t count!”
“Why not? It’s a kiss!”
“Nah, Man, kissing your sister isn’t real kissing.”
“It’s a kiss.”
“Dude, you’re hopeless.”

Next, picture this exchange between a teacher and student:

“Hey, Mister, what’s my grade?”
“You’ve got a D.”
“That’s passing, right?”
“Barely. Do you really think you’re ready for next year?”
“It’s passing! That’s all that matters!”
“Nobody lines up around the block to give D students jobs and scholarships.”
“Hey, I passed, that’s all I care about.”
“This is hopeless.”

Now my adolescence predates the Flood,1 and I don’t remember ever having the first conversation, but this time of year I have the second one nearly every day.

In order for students to comprehend the level of achievement that each grade represents, we use kid-friendly language, like this:

A: I mastered this; I could teach it.
B: My understanding is complete.
C: I know this material except for some minor gaps.
D: My understanding is emerging but still has major gaps.
F: I failed to hand in anything assessable or what could be assessed met no criteria.2

And there you have it. How can “emerging understanding, but with major gaps” be passing? Would you feel safe on an airplane that started flights with:

Good morning and thank you for flying  D-Airlines. Rest assured that all our pilots have an emerging understanding of how to fly a plane, and don’t give a second thought to those major gaps in their skills.

Moreover, passing with a D not only gives too many students the idea that they’ve accomplished something, it also gives whoever works with the student next the idea that they’ve met the standards of competence (unless they look at students’ transcripts and see the Ds).

So next year I’m throwing Ds overboard. I know some teachers have already dumped the D. In fact, Sarah Hagan,of Math = Love fame, even dumped Cs and uses A, B, and Not Yet as her grading scale.

So, I might be late to the game, but as I’ve written elsewhere, I’ve been teaching since the “Walk Like an Egyptian” was #1. So it doesn’t come easily to bail on the time-tested grading scale. Nonetheless, next year, my kids and their parents will see this interpretation of their grades:

A: I’ve mastered this; ask if you need help.
B: I got this down.
C: With some extra effort I can handle the next step.
F: I’m not ready to move on.

Raising the bar for my students comes with a welcome commitment by me to raise the bar on myself and help my students get those Ds up to at least a  C. But in the long run, it will be better for all of us.



For more on grading, see “Jesse Pinkman’s Wooden Box” and Dear A+ Student


1Back then, I could tread water for 40 days.

2Just for fun, what would a kissing rubric look like? A: Steamy and Dreamy, I want another!; B: Wow!; C: Not bad, let’s practice some more!; D: Hi, Sis, how’s college?; F: Next time, let’s just go with an air kiss. 

3Sarah was featured on NPR’s #50greatteachers series. I got to know her when we appeared on their Great Teaching panel during the March SXSWedu conference in Austin.

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