What the Heck Do You Do With a D?

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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  • akrafel

    How about A, B, C, N

    I hate Ds and F’s too.  To tell someone they are a failure to me is like a slap.  I tell my students they can not fail unless they stop trying. But you are right, a D is not passing either and should not be the end of a course.  But how about A, B, C, N for Not ready to go on yet.  The yet is important because it does not imply that it will never happen. It is all about growing anyway.  Maybe the kid who doesn’t turn anything in is just not ready to do what society is asking them to do.  It just seems so counter-productive to give grades like this anyway.  It certainly does not seem to  help the kids who have struggled their entire school careers.  I just hate grades period. There has got to be a better way of giving feedback.  I had to take algebra four times before I understood it.  The Ds I got certainly did not tell me anything I did not already know and N would have been kinder.  But, fortunately, I had the chance to repeat the topic until I got it.  But then again I wanted to.  The kids who are the hardest are the ones who have lost hope or care and stop trying. The F’s don’t seem to help. Maybe an N is just a recognition that they are not there yet.  Seems gentler somehow.

    • SandyMerz

      Navigating the system

      I agree with everything you said. Right now, though I’m trying to figure out how to align grading with a school-wide system but also give grades that actually give some information. Part of raising the bar on myself will be to coach students better on exactly where they stand and what they have to to do move up to the next level.

      Thanks for the comment.

  • Marsha

    What if we extended the credit/no/credit idea

    What if we extended the credit/no credit to middle school?  A student would need a number of credits to qualify for high school.

    Where I work, I believe students are ready for more responsibility. The tricky part is when?  IMHO not 6th grade b/c they are transitioning to a new kind of school setup.  But maybe in 7th grade and certainly by 8th grade.

    Students can have little investment in learning b/c regardless of how they perform, they move forward.  What if you threw out the D's and F's, insisted they relearn the material to at least a C quality or there was no credit given for that course.  Without receiving credit on the courses the HS deemed essential for being successful in 9th-12th grade, you'd have to re-take those classes?  Maybe if you didn't get credit for a 7th grade class, you could re-take it during 8th grade.  Maybe if you didn't get credit for the 8th grade prequisite class, you could retake it at the HS for credit.  You could still go if you only failed to get credit in 1 or 2 courses, but you'd have to finish up the learning you didn't get done in middle school.

    I'm all for re-teaching and working harder to help students find success, but I also believe that there should be some consequences.

    • akrafel

      I agree

      I agree with your point about getting the material before you just pass up.  Getting the material is the point right?

      I think reteaching is especially important in middle school mathematics.

  • MichelleBehnfeldt

    What to do with a D

    I LOVE the Flood reference. I am going to borrow the kid friendly language for not only what the grades mean, but the how well they know the material part.

    Students need to become more invested in their education. And we have to figure out how to make that happen in this fast-paced world that changes in a nano-second.

    Ds frustrate me too. What I REALLY don’t like are the parents that wait until 4th Quarter Progress Reports come home and then come to ask “What can I do to help my child pass?” I have been known to ask “Where have you been during the school year when I have been trying to contact you about grades?” The ensuing conversation does not always go well.

    Needless to say, getting our students to understand that PASSING and COMPREHENDING are two different things is the big concern.

  • TriciaEbner

    Grades = frustration

    I know it’s the feedback parents want because it’s familiar. They grew up with grades, and they know what those grades mean . . . or what they THINK those grades mean. 

    Perhaps my biggest frustration is the “pass along” approach. I understand there are studies that show retention isn’t the way to handle those major gaps or lack of knowledge. What IS the best way to handle it? I don’t think it’s what we’re doing.  

    • marsharatzel

      Time doesn’t have to be the constant

      The issue here is that passing a grade in K8, for the most part, is bound to a time requirement.  You spend the time in the seat and we will send you to the next grade.  Moving forward has nothing to do with what you learned or how well you learned it.  Now doesn’t that just seem like a dumb system? 

      Why does it have to be full retention?  Why couldn’t students, before they reach HS, pass some classes and not pass others?  Why wouldn’t we design a system that allows students to re-take single subjects that they didn’t finish?

      In a middle school, like where I work, that would tend to create a scheduling nightmare.  So do we walk away from a possibility because we’ll have to solve the scheduling issue?  

      I think it would be far better to let students advance to the next grade but return to just the course where they were not able to meet the exit requirements.  Say I didn’t pass math, I could move forward to the next grade but go back to the previous grade’s math class and re-learn what I missed.

  • Mark Barnes


    Better still, what if we throw out all grades? Never put a number, percentage or letter on anything a student does. Might students begin to learn for the sake of learning?