NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis


May 21, 2008

In most math problems, zero would never be confused with 50, but a handful of schools nationwide have set off an emotional academic debate by giving minimum scores of 50 for students who fail.

Their argument is that other letter grades -- A, B, C and D -- are broken down in increments of 10 from 60 to 100, but there is a 59-point spread between D and F, a gap that can often make it mathematically impossible for some failing students to ever catch up.

Schools have taken a variety of approaches to change the system:

  • In Hillsboro, Ore., the school district is planning to roll out such a policy slowly. School board member Hugh O'Donnell says he hopes it is implemented within a couple of years "once we educate the teachers."
  • The Dallas Independent School District has a policy not to allow semester grades below a 50; one principal's decision to disallow grades below a 70 in certain instances drew protests this spring and was rescinded.
  • At Lehn Middle School in Port Byron, N.Y., the teachers turn in numerical averages from zero to 100 for report cards, and a computer program rounds up anything below a 50.

Opponents say the larger gap between D and F exists because passing requires a minimum competency of understanding at least 60 percent of the material. Handing out more credit than a student has earned is grade inflation, says Ed Fields, founder of, a site for teachers and parents: "I certainly don't want to teach my children that no effort is going to get them half the way there."

Source: Steve Friess, "At some schools, failure goes from zero to 50," USA Today, May 19, 2008.

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