'Dr. Phil' Graphic Claimed to Show Lenient 'Public School Grading Scale' in California. Here's What We Found

Facebook user Latara Youngblood
Facebook user Latara Youngblood
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On April 4, 2024, posts began appearing online showing a graphic from an episode of the daytime talk show "Dr. Phil" that showed a "public school grading scale" far more lenient than what many Americans are used to seeing. The graphic, summarizing a "Facebook Post by [California] Parent," assigns an "A" grade to an 84% and up, while the next three grades covers 20 percentage points, making a "B" between 64% and 84%, a "C" between 44% and 64% and so on, with an "F" below 24%.

(Facebook user Latara Youngblood)

Users across the social media landscape left comments bemoaning the state of the American public-education system. Some users went further, implying that the scale was implemented statewide.

But a few things about the post felt a bit wrong: The graphic did not include a precise source, and the grading scale was so different that we wondered whether it was real.

Is the Facebook Post Real?

It is unclear whether the post referenced by the graphic was real and whether it was describing a legitimate grading system.

Although we were unable to find an exact clip from the episode, we feel relatively comfortable in saying that the graphic is a real screenshot from "Dr. Phil." Dr. Phil McGraw used the same example when discussing American public education on "The Joe Rogan Experience" podcast in October 2022.

"Dr. Phil" stopped taping new episodes in early 2023, which means the episode in question would have been a rerun in April 2024. That fact made it even harder to track down the post's origin. We reached out to people involved with the production of "Dr. Phil" to ask them for the graphic's source, but have not yet heard back. We could not find a Facebook post matching what appeared on the show.

Because the Facebook post supposedly came from California, we investigated the grading methodologies of a few large public school districts in the state and reached out to the California's Department of Education.

The Los Angeles and Long Beach Unified school districts did not publish a districtwide grading scale, but reporting from the Los Angeles Times combined with documents for graduation requirements confirmed that these schools use some sort of a letter grade system. In February 2024, L.A. Unified updated its grading practices for the first time since 2005 and included a "heavy suggestion" that teachers move away from traditional grading. However, the episode of "Dr. Phil" with the graphic would have aired long before that change was made.

In addition, the San Diego Unified and San Francisco Unified school districts had districtwide grading scales for middle- and high-schoolers that match the standard "A = 90-100%" grading scale most Americans are used to. Therefore, although the grading scale shown on "Dr. Phil" might exist in the state of California, it certainly is not statewide. We have not yet heard back from the Department of Education.

In our research, we came across mentions of a grading methodology called "mastery-based" or "standards-based" grading that might be able to explain the uncommon scale. In particular, we found that the percentages found in the graphic could have easily resulted from attempting to translate a mastery-based grading system into a more traditional percentage-based or letter grade system.

So with the caveat that Snopes could not definitively identify the particular scale featured on "Dr. Phil," let's explore standards-based grading.

Standards-Based Grading

Sharona Krinsky, an adjunct professor of mathematics at California State University, Los Angeles and executive director of The Grading Conference, knew exactly what was going on with that methodology.

"Grades don't communicate learning. They were designed to rank and score students against each other," she said. "We're recreating grading as a tool to help students learn and report what they learn."

In order to do that, Krinsky said, we need to think of grades as subjective evaluations rather than objective numbers. In a normal ABCDF grading scale, student assignments are given point values and scored based on a percentage of points. In standards-based grading, however, students are graded based on whether or not they've exceeded the instructor's learning goals. For instance, an elementary-school math instructor might set learning goals of understanding how parentheses work, or knowing how to add two-digit numbers. Then, each student is given a different mark (oftentimes, on a 0-4 or 0-5 scale) for how well they understand and can apply each objective.

Although a numerical scale is still applied in standards-based grading, Krinsky said that what really matters is whether the student understands the concept.

"Grades are labels, and we made the mistake of treating them as math," she said.

Under common ABCDF gradings, the passing threshold is a C, equivalent to 70%. But on standards-based learning scales, passing is often a 3, placing it much closer to the graphic that appeared on "Dr. Phil," where a C was between 44 and 64%. And when taken in a vacuum, such a grading scale makes it look like the expectations for students are more lenient.

"If that's the only thing you change, then of course standards are going to go down," Krinsky said.

But these grading systems do not exist in a vacuum. Under standards-based grading systems, educators change more than just the grading scale. This was the main problem Krinsky had with the graphic on "Dr. Phil." She said the lack of context removed any possible explanation for how the grades are given and what standards the students are being held to.

Translating a standards-based system into a familiar percentage or letter grade scale just doesn't make a lot of sense, because number grades are not objective. A 50% on one scale could genuinely equal the same effort from a student as a 70% on another scale. This is possibly how Dr. Phil's grading scale ended up the way it did: a different set of academic standards got lost in translation.

Krinsky said that people criticizing the public education system, grading scales included, don't often acknowledge that it fails because budget cuts and political pressure do not give it the chance to succeed. She wanted parents who criticize the education system to know that her goal is to get their kids to learn effectively.

"Parents should be willing to engage with an open mind, and not assume that their way is always the best way." she said. "They're such powerful advocates."


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