DADE CITY — Beth Tillack was beside herself.
She had taken away computer and iPod privileges from her son, Douglas, for poor grades in his civics class at Pasco Middle School. Yet, when report cards came out, Tillack learned her seventh-grader's overall grade-point average had landed him on the honor roll.
He needed a 3.15. His grades — four A's, a C and a D — averaged out to 3.16.
"I am furious and appalled," Tillack wrote to superintendent Kurt Browning. "Talk about minimum standards! So now instead of losing privileges and trying harder, he now thinks he has done enough. I am so shocked."
She didn't expect anyone to understand her concern. But to her surprise, Browning and his staff took her side and demanded answers.
"I am with the parent on this one," assistant superintendent Amelia Larson said in an e-mail to Browning.
For too long, Larson said in an interview with the Tampa Bay Times, education has focused on grades as an end in themselves. Parents and students often get upset about B's, not to mention D's and F's, because good marks serve as a gateway to other positive things in life.
"We want a better way of communicating progress toward our end-of-the-year outcomes so parents don't get upset if their kids don't come home with straight A's," Larson said. "If we give the wrong message, the kids may be content at the level they are at."
She cited the influence of Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck, an expert on motivation, on her own philosophy for the district. Dweck's "growth mind-set" theory — that students do best if they believe their intelligence can improve through experience and experimentation — is gaining wider acceptance in K-12 education around the country.
"You don't do kids any favors if we're not honest, if we inflate their achievement or we put it down," said Ken O'Connor, a Canadian education consultant who specializes in student grading and reporting.
Letter grades are "virtually worthless" without detailing areas that need improvement or areas that show improvement, O'Connor said.
Schools and society place too much emphasis on grades as a credential, said Columbia University education sociologist Aaron Pallas.
Letter grades lack subtleties of what students, parents and teachers need to do to get the desired results, Pallas said. Sometimes, that means praising struggling students so they feel a sense of accomplishment, even if they don't meet all of the standards. Sometimes, it means making lessons more interesting.
And if parental priorities get lost in school procedures, Pallas said, all need to collaborate.
"I think talking is the best thing," he said.
Tillack found that reaching out to Pasco Middle School yielded just such a relationship.
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Principal Kim Anderson reviewed the report card with Douglas, pointing out areas where he needed to work harder, without discounting the fact that he had done well in the majority of his courses. His teachers also reacted positively, Tillack said.
They found that Douglas simply found civics uninteresting.
"The dilemma is, how can we work together to motivate a child who has the ability, to want to make better grades?" Tillack said.
At the least, she said, the district should consider changing its honor roll formula so that students who have grades below a certain level aren't eligible.
"I'm all for it being harder, as opposed to easier," Tillack said. "The overall thing is, if a child knows they can do the minimum and get by, what kind of message does that send about the other areas in their life?"
Jeffrey S. Solochek can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.