Two weeks ago, I composed a post that questioned whether I should pass or fail E a student in my English II class who could meet many of the benchmarks of English II but who had failed to complete the assignments; I could not justify a passing grade. The post was published a week later in the Teacher edition of Education Week. The student’s pseudonym “E” was replaced with “Elena”, and the post received a spectrum of replies (71 to date) which ranged from the hard-line stance of “flunk her” to a more forgiving “grades are meaningless so pass her” position. Responses questioned whether assessments are necessary to measure student learning; others argued that assessments are a means to measure student responsibility. What was the most striking was that these variety of replies to my post revealed the deep divides in teachers and other stakeholders’ opinions on assessing student performance.
There were a few answers that suggested “how to” better measure student standards. For example, Craig M advocated a standards-based, formative/summative, 4-point grading noting “the 4-point scale changes the difference between passing and a zero from 60% to 20% (a 1 is a D)” and recommended I “look up The Case Against the Zero by Reeves.” Another practical suggestion came from LearnOutside, “The key accommodation that I always made in my classroom was to have a reasonable ‘late work’ policy that accommodated for some of my students’ inability to plan for the future. To me, it made sense to allow them to get partial credit. It tracks with what we know about the teenage brain’s capacity to deal with future risk/reward, and in the end gets them to do the work.”
A response by DrKenGoldberg did detect that E’s current status was not an isolated problem, suggesting that “these issues are often seeded by homework difficulties in the early grades….what most teachers don’t see is ‘the rest of the story’. I admit that for reasons of privacy, I did not detail E’s complicated family history.
There were responses that urged me to think beyond the limits of grades such as the post by Jerry Heverly who offered, “How foolish does all this national testing seem when I think of students like E and when I think of the people who have enriched our society without a high school diploma?” Similarly, Jan Priddy suggested, “It’s another matter of judgment. Education is not the same as building a roof. It’s an appealing analogy, but our students are people, not carpenters, and as teachers we work with minds, not lumber.” Similarly, Dan M noted that, “Most likely, E is not going to be entering corporate America upon graduation from high school or college if she chooses to go. Her actions have demonstrated evidence of this. But that doesn’t mean that she will be a failure in life. One of the mistakes we as educators make is trying to fit (and assess) all of our students within the same paradigm.”
Some were concerned with legal problems that arise from grading, especially Michael Keathley who stated, “We are a culture dominated by legalities. If such students were passed without demonstrating the knowledge by completing written assignments, etc., certainly lawsuits would follow.” His response was echoed by R.x who suggested, “teachers can only assign the grades their administrations will support.” I would like to think that it was their responses and not my original post that led Thien Ha to conclude that, “this proves that American education system have too much powers on the hands of parents and students than school administrators, and teachers. Many students must pass even though they were not qualified to pass, since teachers have no power to fail or if they fail many students, they would be evaluated by parents by principals as a failure teacher, they might got fired. “
Certain responses were sympathetic, the “I’ve been there” commiserating type. Duane Swacker considered that I should, “always give the students the benefit of the doubt as there is no teacher grading system that is accurate to even 5-10 percentage points. It’s a fallacy most believe in but grades, standards and standardized testing are all falsehoods with many errors involved in the process.” However, ArtG scolded my “story of muddled thinking or rather, muddled by emotional overflow”. In my defense, I would argue that he has never met E or seen her interactions with others; she is difficult not to like.
Ultimately, the see-saw of debate tipped toward taking a hard-line approach. Momwithbrain1 bluntly expressed, “today [students] think they can skate by and when they graduate and take on a job, that simply is NOT the reality. I’d rather they learn life lessons in school. She may have gained some knowledge in the class but she is also learning that she can be irresponsible and lazy and it has no impact on her.” Bntradical agreed stating, “When Elena enters the work world, she will get the job, because she knows the content, but if she fails to meet the real world deadlines, she will get fired. Thus, if you fail to fail her now, you will be failing her later in life, failing yourself, and failing society.” MrLionsDen added, “Failing, at any grade level, is an important life lesson and it’s not terminal.”
Nick Mangieri pointed out the problems that I could experience in the future saying, “What happens in the future when it becomes known that you don’t have to turn in the work in Mr/Mrs X’s class because you’ll pass anyway as long as he/she likes you?” Certainly BK was the most chastising, ” I really, really do not see a dilemma here. You are being paid whatever your contract says – and it’s fair, even though you are also ‘more than a unit to be measured.’ What if instead you were paid whatever your principal ‘feels like’? It seems like this is what you are considering here – and it’s utterly unfair to all the other kids who DID pass and DID earn their A’s and B’s.” Finally, I feel particularly responsible for the students of agardne3 who concluded that, “Your article has pushed me over the edge to grade them as they deserve.”
Numerous replies concluded that I speak to E once more as an intervention, a practice I had performed daily the entire fourth quarter. I was quite serious in when I spoke to E once more the last week of school; I did not hold out much hope after the conversation. I had heard her promises before.
But E strolled in the morning the day grades closed. Clutched in her hand were three missing major assignments…two dialectical journals and one motif paper. She sheepishly handed them to me, “I don’t care if they only get a few points, but would these be enough to pass?”
Yes. The missing work, given even a few points (20/100 each) would push her GPA into passing English for the year.
So I passed her.
She obviously was following the grade change on Powerschool, and that afternoon she sent me an e-mail:
I am so excited I passed, Thanks for the second chances!! If it wasn’t for those I would be taking it over. I highly appretiate [sic] it (:
Sharing this story of E has reassured me that I am not alone in wrestling with the obligations of judging student performance in a classroom. This forum has certainly informed me on methods I could employ in order to avoid this problem in the future. Despite the divisions in the commenters’ opinions, each response indicated a desire to help me be a better teacher, or at least help me avoid the an unnecessary dramatic finale for next year.
So glad you accommodated her efforts, even though they were technically outside the allocated timeline. Regarding failure in general, most students who fail a class also fail the re-take. There are statistics available on this in numerous distinguished education research journals, including AERA. The point of this reference is that students fail because they do not have the skills, or capable students fail because they have family, social, emotional problems, making the failure a call for help. This is why I personally do not believe in failing a student who has learned the skills but failed the submissions. However, this student and her issues should have been addressed early in the class timeline, and indicates a failure of the educational system–whether it was a counselor who dismissed her, a teacher who did not confront her, a previous year faculty who passed her on, etc. As teachers, we are–for better or worse–in loco parentis, and should be at least as aware of each individual student’s needs as the actual parents, since we tend, collectively, to see more of each child than a parent does. Any teacher who believe his/her only function is to impart knowledge or present activities should give much thought to why he/she holds that job. High school teens are so vulnerable to begin with. High school teachers need to help their students through those difficult adolescent years. Sorry if I go against the trend here, but if this student’s progress was not addressed early in the course, then the student does not deserve to fail. At that point it is our own failure.