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In Carroll County, they boldly attempt to go where no modern public school has gone before. They've eliminated D's from the grade system at North Carroll High, and told students: Get at least a C, or take an F.

"It brings a new rigor," says Dr. Gregory Eckles, director of secondary schools for Carroll County, who was principal at North Carroll when the great experiment commenced three years ago.

"We're making the kids use their minds," North Carroll's teachers declare in chorus, to which we hear amens from serious students who have big plans for college.

"It's wonderful," say North Carroll parents blessed with shortness of memory.

In many ways, elimination of the D (there's a temptation to say "the dreaded D," except that, for those of us who remember flirtations with the even more dreaded F, that D seemed an oasis in the Sahara) is a wonderful move worthy of imitation across the whole state.

It encourages students to stretch their minds. As Eckles was saying yesterday, too many students do just enough work to pass. Their brains are stuck in neutral. Elimination of the D makes them take their minds to places they might not otherwise go.

Sounds good, no?

Then there's that destructive thing called grade inflation. Over the past 15 years, minimum, there's been an undeclared sea change in the public schools. Work once considered substandard is now given the passing grade. It's easier that way for everyone. It moves the troublesome kids out of the system as quickly as possible and allows teachers to focus on those who actually wish to work.

But the grade inflation has worked its way upward. Work once routinely given a C is now seen as exceptional. A's and B's have become wholesale offerings. It's all part of the thing known as the dumbing down of America.

Eliminate the D, and maybe we begin to eliminate such dangerous academic trends. A little school like North Carroll becomes a test tube for the rest of American academia.

Sounds promising, no?

"The idea," Eckles was saying yesterday, "was to take kids in the D range, and give them the opportunity to rethink their work, to retest and to get their grades up to a C. Those who do it, pass. Those who don't, fail. But give them a second chance. Or a third. We want them to be successful.

"When we started this, some of our teachers felt we weren't challenging kids to compete countywide. Some kids were just sitting on D's, never taking a risk with their minds. North Carroll's SATs were below the state average, and also below the national average."

Today, that's changed. North Carroll's average SAT score is 1,030 (1,600 is perfect), compared with the county average of 1,036, the state average of 1,011 and the national average of 1,013.

Also, the percentage of North Carroll students going to college has improved.

So, who could argue with such success?

Not I.

Except I

Elimination of the D seems to overlook one student: the kid who's working as hard as he can, and D is the best he can do - maybe not in every subject, but maybe in something like algebra, a subject that ceases to exist when most of us enter the real world.

"Good example," says Eckles. "Our feeling is, if a student gets a D in algebra I, and then goes on to algebra II, he can't succeed there. He hasn't learned the fundamentals. So we've done him a disservice by allowing the D to be a passing mark. And, if he can't do high school algebra, he's not going to be able to do college algebra."

Fair enough, but it leads to another problem: By the time a kid's in the 11th grade, it's clear - not in every case, but in many - that some won't be needing algebra in the real world. Their instinct is, let us say, for the humanities, for English and history and language.

Why is this kid forced to continue taking such requirements as algebra, which create such trauma as to spoil the overall process of going to school? And why, if the course is required, should the god-sent D be removed, thus making school even more traumatic, for many who are working as hard as they can?

"Partly," says Eckles, "it's how we define a D. There are a lot of ways of doing this. Teachers are human. They want to make the kids successful. It's a human thing. Yes, some students can learn faster than others. Yes, a certain percentage of kids don't have the aptitude for something like algebra. That's why we let them take tests a second time."

And if they fail it again?

"Take it a third time," Eckles said.

For the student who's clearly making an effort, it was suggested to Eckles, eventually the sympathetic teacher will find a way to help the student get a passing grade?

"Certainly," Eckles said. "And that's always been the case."

Only now, they choose not to call it a D.

Pub Date: 4/24/97

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