In the movie Apollo 13, when Ed Harris's character (Flight Director Gene Kranz) announces "Failure is not an option," he is referring to the fact that the team could not even consider the possibility that the astronauts stranded in a broken spacecraft would not return to Earth safely. But when West Potomac High School principal Clifford Hardison says it, he is talking about the fact that his school has dropped the use of the F grade in classes. Rather, students who have not performed up to minimal expectations will be given an I for Incomplete, and will be given additional time to do the work necessary for a passing score.
Needless to say, this has been a very controversial move, both within the school itself and among the educational community. Proponents argue that what we should really care about is that students' achieve mastery, not how long it takes them to do so. Otherwise, they continue, students receiving F grades simply drop any attempt to understand that subject matter....and, all too often, end up dropping out of school all together. Opponents say that removing the F grade takes away one of the few tools in the teacher's arsenal as teachers attempt to persuade reluctant learners that they need to apply themselves and do the work necessary to cover the subject matter and skills required to be productive in "the real world." And the "good students"--the ones who have performed to expectations, who turned in all their assignments on time and studied to get good grades on their tests--worry that the fact that their high school gives out I's (to be replaced by the appropriate grade once all assignments and tests have been passed) will diminish the value of the high grades they achieved within the normal timeframe of the class.
It is particularly interesting to consider from a homeschooling perspective. Most of the homeschoolers I know do minimal or no grading until students get into high school level classes, which need to be turned into some kind of transcript for college admission or job applications. In my experience, the prevailing thought among area homeschoolers is that those transcripts need to include grades, because that is what colleges or employers expect. But there is a contingent that argues that even high school level work should not be graded (including one of my favorite writers on educational reform, Alfie Kohn). But even among those who are grading their students, many actually take the same approach as West Potomac. That is, if their children don't get through all the material in a subject the parent's have planned for the year, they don't usually get an F; they continue to work on it in the next academic year, and it is listed as a course in the year in which they complete the work, not the year they began it.
I haven't decided which way we will go when my son gets to the transcript years. But what about you? Do you think giving F's is a good idea or a bad idea?