A particularly disturbing meme making the rounds in social media boldly states: "In some schools, they have abolished failing grades and they'll give you as many times as you want to get the right answer. This doesn't bear the slightest resemblance to ANYTHING in real life."
When something is repeated widely, it can take on a truth of its own. People accept it without question because of the ubiquitous nature of the quote without thinking through the underlying meaning. I maintain that giving students the time and support they need to actually LEARN something is far more helpful than failing them the first time and moving on. Let me explain.
In the real world, I have multiple chances to pass the bar exam, take a drivers' license test, master proficiency on the Praxis exam. I have used this metaphor before, but before a pilot is entrusted with landing a plane on his own, he must be given repeated attempts to demonstrate that he has acquired the skill. Some will take fewer attempts, but ALL must learn to land the plane safely. I don't show the pilot how to land one time and give him a test. No, I provide much practice and multiple attempts to reach proficiency. On the job, if I am being trained to do a new task, my employer makes sure that I get the training I need to do the task correctly. It may take some of us longer to learn, but certainly multiple attempts to grasp the necessary knowledge are afforded so that all employees, in the end, can do the expected task. Even after an employee is trained, if a job is botched, it will likely be sent back to be redone so that the final result is acceptable. It is the rule, rather than the exception in life that we have more than one chance to master skills that we are learning.
Why do we accept this notion that all children must achieve the same standard at the same time? Historically, grades were used to sort and rank students. Rather than serving as communication about student achievement relative to clear learning standards, grades were intended to put children into tracks. These students would go to college, these would enter a trade, and these would be relegated to working on the farm or in an entry-level position in industry. This sort and rank strategy worked in an industrial society where children could make productive livings on farms or in factories with little formal training. College was not intended to be for all students. Education was set up to be like the assembly line - all children moved along at the same pace and were sorted at the end of the line by grades, the quality control of the system.
While this process functioned as intended in an industrialized economy, it is disastrous in the twenty-first century. Today, we know that all children can and do learn. We understand that high expectations are possible. Teachers strive to challenge each student at his or her own level, so that all children move forward toward clear learning targets. It is vitally important that all children acquire the skills and knowledge necessary to be successful adults. This means that ALL children should be given the opportunity to learn. Assembly-line education is obsolete. Grades should inform us of student achievement relative to learning goals. While the goals may be the same for all children in a classroom, the time it takes each child to reach the goal is the variable.
In the past, the TIME was the constant and the learning outcome was the variable. All children didn't learn the same high standards. Today, TIME is the variable and the learning outcome is the constant. Quite simply, it takes some of us longer to learn than it does others, but that doesn't mean we all can't learn. Students who fail a summative assessment initially are given extra time and support to reach the same level of mastery as students who grasp the material the first time presented. Failing grades are not a mark of rigor. They are a sign that someone has given up.