Seattle Public Schools has changed its high-school grading policy to include E grades, a mark more commonly known as an F. In the past, students who did not pass a class earned an N, which did not affect their grade-point averages.

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For the first time in seven years, Seattle public high-school students who do poorly can receive a failing grade on their report cards.

Since 2000, not a single student has received an E, a mark more commonly known as an F. High schools instead handed out N’s for “no credit,” which didn’t affect a student’s grade-point average and took much of the sting out of failure.

But the E is back — effective immediately.

The reason, the district says, is a technical one. In a larger review of high schools, a district committee recently realized that the exclusive use of N’s violated School Board policy.

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The change, however, has been welcomed by many principals and teachers who believe that students should face more consequences for failure.

At Ingraham High, for example, just one of the school’s 14 department heads opposed the change, Principal Martin Floe said.

“I think it’s the right step,” Floe said. “It allows us to be consistent with the grading practices for the majority of schools in the area.”

The return of the E could cause difficulties for some athletes because the school district requires students to have a C average to play. It also might affect some students’ prospects as they apply to college, although area colleges are aware of what Seattle was doing.

But it will stop what many say was an unintended consequence: Some students decided it was better for their GPAs if they just gave up and lost credit for a class rather than earn a D or even a low C.

“For a number of years now, people have been feeling that the N policy is problematic,” said Marni Campbell, principal at Nathan Hale High School.

An E counts as a zero

When students receive an E or an N, they don’t get any credit toward graduation. The E, however, counts as a zero when calculating a student’s grade-point average. An N does not. So a student with three A’s and three E’s would have a grade-point average of 2.0. A student with three A’s and three N’s would have a perfect grade-point of 4.0.

The district doesn’t plan to change past N’s to E’s, but says schools should give the failing grade from now on.

District officials say former Chief Academic Officer June Rimmer banished the failing E grade seven years ago, in part to help some students meet the district’s then-new requirement that students had to have a C average to graduate. The School Board also had voted that, for the purposes of graduation, failing grades can be left out of the GPA equation. The board did not, however, say schools could do away with E’s altogether.

Rimmer’s decision was a part of a larger effort to focus more on what students learn, and less on how long it takes them. She once proposed what she called an “at-your-pace” diploma, which students would earn in three to five years. The idea was to acknowledge that not all students learn at the same rate, and should be able to retake a class without being punished or discouraged by receiving a failing grade the first time.

Rimmer was quoted saying that N could stand for “not yet.”

She wasn’t alone in such sentiments. One example is the Federal Way School District, where students have to earn at least a C-minus in required classes or retake them. Teachers in many school districts incorporate similar ideas in how they grade assignments.

State law allows high-school students to retake a class and count only the higher grade in their GPA, although the failing grade still must be listed on transcripts. And Seattle allows students to take one class each semester for pass/no credit.

But Seattle appears to be the only district in the area that didn’t use — or count — failing grades on report cards. Even nationally, it appears that it’s one of just a handful. One national consultant who has written books about grading said he’s come across several. Another says he’s never heard of any.

Practice inflated GPAs

College admissions officers were aware that the practice inflates Seattle students’ GPAs. Western Washington University and University of Washington officials said that’s one reason they look at students’ transcripts, not just their GPAs.

“Just because it’s not counted in the GPA doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter,” said Philip Ballinger, UW’s admissions director. “We take a look at a GPA and then we place it in a great big pile of contextual salt. We want to place that GPA in context. The N is part of that.”

Still, the fact that Seattle students could fail four classes, get two As and still have a perfect GPA “seemed a bit ridiculous,” said Tim Ames, a social-studies teacher at Nathan Hale High School.

That didn’t happen often, but it did happen, usually just for one semester or quarter, said Bruce Bivins, principal at West Seattle High.

Bivins, like many principals, is happy the E is back, saying he thinks it will lead students to work harder.

Board member Harium Martin-Morris said the N offered too much absolution for his taste.

“It might be the tough-love part of me,” he said, “but there are times when you don’t do well that it has to be made known to you in a very direct way.”

Michael Tolley, the district’s high-school director, said the exclusive use of “no credits” also may have unintentionally raised the district’s dropout rate. If it’s true that a lot of students opted for N’s rather than D’s, he said, they might have saved their GPAs in the short term, but they also missed out on earning credits. And lack of credits, he said, is one of the top reasons why students drop out.

Some teachers say they’ll miss the flexibility that the N allowed, especially the ability to send students a message without putting a big dent into their GPAs.

And Garfield High School Principal Ted Howard II says the return to the E needs to be accompanied by intensive support for students who arrive in high school performing below grade level, so they have a chance to earn passing grades.

The E versus N issue came up as part of a larger discussion of grading practices. A subcommittee of the district’s high-school steering committee already has made recommendations that its members hope will encourage students to work harder. Those recommendations include allowing teachers to give A-minuses and B-pluses rather than just straight letter grades, giving more weight in the GPA to tough college-level courses such as Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate, and doing away with the requirement that students need a C average to graduate.

That subcommittee also endorsed bringing back the E.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359


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