While most school reform efforts are increasingly focused on teachers, a small suburban school district in New Jersey has decided it's time to hold students more accountable. Middle schools and high schools in Mount Olive have eliminated the D grade, so students must earn at least a C to pass a class.
Last year, Larrie Reynolds, Mount Olive's schools superintendent, began holding discussions with students and teachers about why a small percentage of the district's students were doing so poorly. Reynolds found that students readily admitted they didn't do their work and didn't try their best. He found that particularly troubling at graduation time.
"The board president or myself would hand them a diploma that we signed, saying they knew stuff that I knew they didn't know," Reynolds says.
So with the support of the Mount Olive school board, principals and teachers, Reynolds eliminated the possibility of getting a D as a final grade. Students must now have an average of 70, a C.
"If you don't know 70 percent, it's not that we're going to give you an F and be done with it. It's that you have to learn 70 percent. There's not an option. The option before was get an F and average it in. No," Reynolds says. "The option now is if you get an F, you do it over. So it's A, B, C or do it over."
Mount Olive is about an hour-and-a-half from New York City -- where the suburbs meet the still-rural western edge of New Jersey. The median family income is $75,000 a year, and the schools rank high in terms of average test scores.
But the superintendent was not satisfied with the 389 students in the high school who got at least one D last June -- even though that represents only 2 percent of the kids. So now, every student who gets a D or an F must repeat the class, either at a new night school, in summer school or during the next school year. Mount Olive High School Principal Kevin Stansberry says eliminating the D grade sends a clear message to all students.
"We feel it's going to have a positive impact, not only on D and F students, but we feel all students, because even our B and C students somewhere along the line probably earned a C or a D or F that brought their average down," Stansberry says.
Not surprisingly, honor-roll students like sophomore Hannah Kim like the tougher grading, especially because it comes with extra help, even for students who only occasionally get a low grade.
"When we got bad grades, they didn't give us a chance for retakes, but now, thanks to the policy, you get four days to retake it or a day to make up missed homework, and then peer support and tutoring," Kim says.
Students with lower grades, for the most part, grudgingly admit that it will force them to work harder. Even so, junior Ashley Scapicchio says she thinks some kids will give up, and the school could have found less punitive alternatives.
"I think they could apply other tools to help students do better -- maybe add an extra class that if you are getting Ds, they put you in that class and it's a smaller class, and they can have teachers try to motivate you rather than just taking the D away," Scapicchio says.
Mount Olive's principal says the new policy puts more pressure on parents, too, to stay on top of their kids. Soon the school will begin using an automated system that sends an e-mail to a parent the very day a student receives a D or F score on any assignment or test.