It was reported in the Washington Post ( Nov. 14, 2010) that West Potomac High School, in Fairfax Country in the United States is dropping the ‘idea’ of putting ‘failing’ mark or ‘F’ on the records of students who are not able to meet the required competency on schedule. Instead of  F students are given an ‘I’ or incomplete.

This is the case in a United School that perhaps, seriously considers the principles behind the ‘Education for All’ and their ‘No Child Left Behind’ policy.  One may see this as an obvious social experiment that is based on sound theories or principles of learning.  The case of Philippine basic education and secondary education is different, yet aligned to the same guiding concepts of learning.

When I learned of this news posted on my FB wall, I didn’t pay immediate attention. It is because I knew it is happening in other schools and even in the country. Such kind of news was no surprise for me, but it does need some reflective discourse. I find this move from the school administrators constructive and rightfully considers the plight of students who are underachieving. The move upholds constructivism and is cognizant of the value of life-long learning.

However, the initiative will require systemic changes that can be burdensome for teachers as it is shocking to the unknowing of the philosophy and principles of pedagogy that banks on learning rather than the orthodox practice of education.

I am using the term learning, which I refer to the outcomes of education and the pragmatic goal of teaching. In constructivist sense, learning is a permanent change of behavior. Education aims to enable the students to learn – change their behavior by exhibiting the target competencies as set forth in the curriculum. Learning as a process of behavioral change requires time and it is dependent on the readiness, development, motivation, commitment and engagement of the learner to the process. Add to this, the role of the teacher, textbooks, teaching tools and methodologies are mere interventions to the process for a child to move from his state of development to an advanced competent state.

What does grading do and how does it enhance the learning process of both high-performing and low-performing learners?  The principle of testing or measurement is to calibrate the students so that they can be classified, and that the proper intervention in their learning process may be provided appropriately for them. This very system of measurement does not only determine the performative state of the student, but it also has impact on their esteem. That it has an effect on a child’s emotional state which when not processed could affect the child’s engagement in academic works.

Would an ‘F’ mean other things? One parent whose children studied in a British school in a middle-eastern country, told me years ago, that she finds the idea of having a no ‘F’ mark unconventional, yet she understood the point that getting a failing mark can result to consequential affects to a child’s psyche. In the school where her children studied, if students were not able to meet the requirements or standards, they get to repeat the processes where they had to work. This, I believe is an important post-teaching remediation. It gives the chance for students to make up for what they missed in the process and so master the required competencies.

When a school considers learning as the outcome of education, marks don’t really matter at all. Add the fact that school should aim to develop the intelligences of diverse learners and not just mere ‘knowledge’ because this is how learning in the ‘real world’ works. Both parents and some members of the academe have a divide in their views about the issue, that is idiosyncratic and influenced by their held principles about education. The traditional monolithic education where the teacher is at the center will challenge this effort as it challenges their role in the students’ learning and evaluation. On the other hand those who takes a constructivist, learner-centered view will uphold this move as essentially necessary (apologies for the redundancy).

An ‘F’ matters a lot. Failure to an adult is different from an adult perspective as compared to the views of the young learner. Grades actually imply competitiveness or should I say competition rather than acquiring competency. Grades should reflect authentic performance that the calibration should qualify and not just quantify the value of that performance in numbers of letters. The latter are mere signifiers, what is more important is what they signify. An ‘F’ can be self-defeating. An ‘F’ can become a family issue. An ‘F’ can lead to an academic disaster. All these can happen when ‘F’ is understood to represent the learner rather than his or her performance.

Otherwise, an ‘F’ can mean future success. I got an ‘F’ once, because my professor in college did not round up the grades. For her, since she is really into numbers, 74.75 is 74.75. I would have been happier to receive  a 3.0 grade for that organizational management class, that was the least one could get. But she said, I did not just make the cut, so I had to take the subject again. How was my performance measured in that class? It was measured greatly based on my midterm and final exams, least on how I could articulate the ideas behind the concepts that we should learn but more on the number of terms that I could recall. No remediation was afforded to me to prove my worth and competence.

I took the same class after a term, so I must have forgotten whatever I was able to recall the first time I took the class. In the same class, but from a different professor, I got 1. 75, a very good rating. That failure was one of the reason that I took a Master in Business Administration, only to get a 1.15 General Point Average. I understand, from my experience that grades alone do not indicate the competency of individuals. I understand also that grades do not reflect the potentials of an individual. The intelligence that a person is beyond the measures of paper and pencil test.

An ‘F’ is a scarlet letter. My elder male siblings had a lot of those while they were in highschool. Although they were able to pass through high school, the grades they had were not something they could be proud of to their kids. None of them finished college, none of them express appreciation to the education they had. I guess, that is because they think it is the school that deserves an ‘F’. If this is so, then should there be another chance for the school or the educational system to do some remediation?

Like anything else our full potentials is not achieved at a single point in time. We cannot be subject to time. Don’t parents complain and beg their kids’ teachers to pass their kids when they fail? Don’t they demand a change of grade?  The reason for removing the ‘F’ is fair and simple, to give a final chance and for the learner to be fruitful, so in the future they may learn that learning is in fact about rising above from failure. In real life, we don’t really mark ourself with A+ or B- or F or I. These are but symbols and as we are symboling creatures, we can create new symbols and assign them new meanings.

  1. skysenshi says:

    I got C-minuses in high school because of extremely low self-esteem that made me depressive and unable to cope with the system. It was through sheer IQ and UPCAT test results that had me getting into UP. I knew there was something wrong with my high school educational system when I had to rely on stock knowledge (I was failing in high school, but I was a voracious reader) to pass, while those who topped the classes did not even get close to my NSAT test results.

    I’ve always lamented on grading systems, because you’re not graded in real life. You either make the quota or not, pass the quality assurance test or not, finished the project in time or not.

    I don’t think removing F is the answer, though. There has to be some form of standardization so that professors don’t just easily subject their students to their whims.

    Regarding time, it is a valuable resource. Removing F from the system because of time constraints sort of teaches the wrong values and we bring these values into the work place, which, we have to admit, revolves around time tables. We should learn how to manage our time well, and that’s something that most Filipinos are so incapable of.

  2. rod rivera says:

    Back in College I knew someone so geeky, that he could answer trivial questions and recall concepts taught in the class. He was able to graduate on time. But, when he entered the work place, the company had to let him go after a few months of work. His lacks the self-control, yet he has discipline and demonstrates other virtues, except for the fact that he can be bullied and act right damn stupid, as if without having the capacity to think. He probably holds the record for the most jobs one could ever have.

    While I hold my fifth job since graduating 15 years ago, he had I think more than 75 or a hundred and so. If the school failed him because of his extraordinary psyche, where would he find himself? At least by now, he has hopes that he can still get a job. He now enjoys a career in the call center. Anyway, its not the F or A that could make the difference in real life, it’s the person in body and mind who could choose his path in the time of his choosing.

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