A study of grade distribution at Methuen High shows that struggling students are earning a high proportion of D's and F's. That has alarmed educators who say those grades are "inexcusably low" and is prompting calls to do something about the trend.
It's good that Methuen school officials are tracking student performance in a detailed manner and using the information collected to tailor curriculum and projects toward improvement. That's the kind of responsiveness that we should have in our schools.
The study, which looked at marks issued to students in grades 7 through 12, also found a drop-off in grades as students moved from eighth grade to high school.
High school classes are grouped in three levels: Level 2 classes are aimed at struggling students; Level 3 classes are for advanced students and Level 4 classes are aimed at the high school's most academically advanced students.
Grades for Level 3 classes are about what one would expect — 14 percent A's, 29 percent B's, 26 percent C's, 17 percent D's and 14 percent F's. That's pretty close to a normal distribution with the majority of grades given clustered around the average level with fewer at the extremes, A's as rare as F's.
Grades for Level 4 classes are again what one would expect from high-achieving students — 75 percent A's and B's and just 6 percent D's and F's.
Grades for the Level 2 classes are where educators were surprised — just 8 percent were A's while 49 percent were D's and F's.
Part of this performance is surely related to the way Methuen educators group students. Struggling students, after all, struggle with school work. But the Level 2 classes are intended for students who are not as strong academically. Their performance in these classes should be higher than it is.
"The Level 2 kids, the sheer number of kids that are not attaining success, the number is far too high," Superintendent Jeanne Whitten told reporter J.J. Huggins. "So we are really beginning to look at that as a district, as a high school."
The report, from Jennifer Smith, the School Department's director of assessment and instructional personnel, recommends looking at consistency of grading across the grades and calls for improvements in curriculum, instruction, and assessment in the Level 2 courses.
Methuen educators should indeed do what they can to boost the performance of students struggling with their high school work. But some of these students will never master the material. They either lack the skill to do so or have little desire to try.
School leaders must take great care that the "solution" to the problem of low grades is not to dilute the grades themselves. Students, parents and those invested in the success of the school system deserve an honest assessment of student performance — even if that means some classes result in more F's than A's.