What’s the point of a D grade?
Not much, according to one North Carolina community college.
In 2010, Stanly Community College faculty and advisers realized that the long-held tradition of educators using an A-through-F grading scale didn’t help students who were on transfer pathways or who needed to complete sequential courses — meaning courses that require prerequisites. That was due in part to the grade of D, because while students could pass a course with the grade, they weren’t allowed to move on to the next course in a sequence or transfer to an institution that required a C or higher.
So the math and English departments at the college made a simple change: they stopped awarding D’s.
“Most of us said a student is successful if he or she has 70 percent or better,” said Heather Hill, vice president for academic affairs at Stanly. “We were saying 70 percent or better for student learning outcomes, but still allowing students to pass with a D.”
In order to transfer courses to the state’s universities, students needed to score a 70 percent or at least a C, but the college still allowed students to pass courses with a D. The problem even applied to students who didn’t plan to transfer. If they took a prerequisite course, moving on to the next level required at least a C. Yet students could complete a prerequisite course with a D — they just couldn’t move on to the next level.
“We really noticed it was an issue when we had students that would get the D in their math class and they had a D on the transcript,” said Brigette Myers, the math department program head. “Later they would talk to us as an adviser and they’re ready to transfer, but we’re telling them to retake the class or they have to retake at the [university]. They didn’t understand. ‘Why can I graduate and it won’t transfer?’ students were asking, and the syllabus said they could get a D in the class and now we’re saying it’s not good enough.”
So both departments set the standard that a score of 70 and higher, on a 100-point scale, or an A-minus through C, is considered passing. Anything lower than 70 points is failing.
The change had an impact on the college’s transfer success rate, which the state’s universities measure one year after students transfer from a community college. Stanly stopped awarding D’s collegewide in 2012. For transfer students who had attended Stanly after the change, the college’s transfer success rate increased by 15 percent.
Hill said the college, which enrolls about 3,500 students, can’t definitively say that eliminating D’s led to the improvement in Stanly’s transfer success rate, which prior to the change was about 75 percent, but administration and faculty feel strongly that it had an impact.
“By eliminating the D’s we showed them if they set the bar high for themselves, they can achieve that,” Myers said. “In order to be successful even at the four-year university and to be competitive, they’ve got to make those A’s, B’s and C’s. It’s not prestigious to graduate with a four-year degree and straight D’s.”
Because math and English are the two gateway courses where the issue would arise, and also courses that nearly every student at the college must take, it was faculty members within those departments who pushed for eliminating the grades. Gradually the movement spread across the college to include all general education and university transfer courses.
The only area where the grade change didn’t apply was allied health, Hill said, which already has an established grading scale that stipulates that anything below 80 points is considered failing.
“I don’t feel like having a D shows that you know the majority of course material when a C is considered to be average enough that you should be able to be successful,” Myers said. “That first year, I had students ask about it, but I tried to stress the first day of class the grading scale and I made sure I constantly reminded them all semester they need a 70 to pass and less than 70 is failing. But usually, if the student is concerned about their grade, they will rise to meet the bar wherever you set that bar.”
Myers said she had at most two students who questioned eliminating the D grade, but it’s become the standard during the past few years.
“Many people think I’m mean if they have a 69.3 or 68.5, but that’s an F,” she said. “That’s what it is. They can take quizzes and rework homework until they get 100. There are so many opportunities for them to go in and get those several points. If you can’t support that effort, you don’t deserve it.”
Myers said it’s no different from a student who is a few tenths of a point away from an A grade. If they want it, they’ll earn those extra points, she said.
Hill said a relatively small number of students were affected. The college’s records from 2010 and 2011 show that less than 10 percent of students earned D’s.
“The only group that gave us pause that I was worried about were financial aid students, because a D counted for satisfactory academic progress,” Hill said. “But most of the students earning D’s were having to repeat courses anyway.”
Hill said it’s just as much of a financial aid concern when a student receives an F and has to repeat.
In recent months, Stanly has been approached by a number of other colleges in and outside North Carolina about altering their grading scales.
“We had a great idea that we sort of sat on because it made so much sense that we didn’t see it as innovative,” Hill said. “We presented it in the fall and were surprised by the number of colleges who never thought of it. Since then, people from other states have been asking questions.”
Evelyn Waiwaiole, the executive director of the Center for Community College Student Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin, said that educators have been using the same grading system for so long that no one has questioned it.
“If it doesn’t transfer, it doesn’t count, so why would you do it,” she said. “This reinforces that students want high expectations and will work to meet them.”