Is it possible to create a culture of failure?
My school is currently being asked to discover why the Freshman failure rate is so high. 1/3 of the Freshmen failed a class during their first semester in high school, and statistically speaking 30% of Freshmen who fail a course in their first high school year do not graduate. That is frightening!
In my department alone 1/4 of the Freshmen failed their first high school English class. Because of this, these students will either have to take an online equivalent (though they really aren’t), take a credit retrieval course after school, or repeat the failed course the next year (taking away an elective and doubling up on a subject with which they struggle).
After looking at much of the data, my department now has a list of contributing factors to the failure rate:
- low reading levels upon entering the high school,
- a history of failure stemming from middle school,
- an allowance to remain in ELL programs from elementary and middle school,
- little value placed on education at home,
- assignments not turned in,
- organization problems,
- course requirements not met,
- no interventions immediately available during the school day, and
- class size.
Absent from the list are the curriculum and effective instruction. Because of the collaboration occurring in the department and the annual revamping of the curriculum, the group did not think these two items should make the list especially with the primary focus of the district’s professional development centering on pedagogy.
The two items which have been my department’s calls for assistance are class size and reading levels. However, we are told that we must improve the failure rate before we’ll get help with these two areas.
I have suggested one solution which the department controls: to work with individual students during the second semester to help them pass the first semester class. Since Freshman English is a year long, the teachers would still have the same students for second semester and could work with students to show first semester skills. Also, if a student finished with a 50% or greater first semester and earned a 70% or better during the second semester, the teacher could change the first semester grade to a ‘P’ for pass (doesn’t affect GPA) or a ‘D’ grade. We currently have 1.6 teacher FTE dealing just with failures, and we could relieve some of this burden by helping students pass more classes.
My favorite solution is standards-based grading, but I think the department isn’t ready for that quite yet.
My firm belief is that this is a systemic problem. Students regularly admit that they are able to fail their middle school classes, and they still get to enter the high school, of course, often lacking the skills to succeed. Also, there is a district-wide focus on standardized testing forcing students to become excellent test takers without fostering curiosity and a love of learning. Middle school students test monthly.
Anecdotally, one student was overheard saying “I don’t have to worry about the grammar and punctuation. It’s only two points, and the rest is worth 10 points.” Since the students only need eight points on a writing prompt to pass, she is right. There have been some changes to state test scoring, but part of my point is that the students have reduced writing–and education in general–to point acquisition. A couple of common questions are “How many points is this worth?” or “Is this on the test?” or How many points do I need to pass?”
I’m not sure what all of the answers are, but I do know that I don’t mention the state test unless I have to do so and my students do just fine. Granted, this year I have honors students, but my mainstream students have done well in the past, too, usually with over a 90% passage rate.
However, I (and my department) need help with increasing reading levels and decreasing class sizes. I do believe the system is responsible for much of this problem, and it requires systemic change, not change solely focused on the classroom.
What do your schools do to combat Freshman failures?