To pass or not to pass

Elena drifted into sophomore English class without any materials and spent class time texting or socializing. She didn’t complete assignments.  Yet she reads and writes — when she bothers to do so — at grade level.  Occasionally, she made intelligent comments in class discussions. Her average is just below 60 percent. Should she fail?

She remained blissfully unconcerned as I cajoled, teased, chided, scolded, and threatened her into completing work. Calls home were unproductive, and other teachers indicated that English was not the only cause for academic concern. The school year was maddening.

Now, as the grades are totaled in June, I wonder: Do I hold her accountable for work left incomplete? Can she be exempted from the assignments that all her classmates completed? What is the minimum number of assignments that are the most important to determining student performance? If I exempt her from less important assignments, am I reinforcing her lack of responsibility? Finally, is passing her fair to the students who did complete the assigned work?

Elena doesn’t really need another year of 10th-grade English. She needs to learn to be a responsible student. But how?

About Joanne


  1. You see this a lot in school systems that place students, not by their ability level or skill level, but by grades. The students drift, without being challenged. It’s a very common way to assign students to honors classes.

  2. It is hard to see the dilemna. If the teacher communicated at the beginning of the year what the course and grading criteria was, and followed that criteria, Elena should recieve whatever grade she earned. How is anything else reasonable? I don’t support busywork homework/class assignments, but at some point, kids/adults have to do the work assigned.

    It seemed that much of the teacher’s dilemna stems from the fact that she likes Elena. What about the other kids in the class who are getting the grades they actually earned? Do they get a special favor/disfavor depending on how well the teacher liked them?

  3. Michael E. Lopez says:

    A better question is whether she should learn to be a “responsible student.” It’s not clear at all that this is something she really “needs”.

    It sounds — and maybe I’m just projecting here — that Elena doesn’t see schoolwork as something worthwhile. If it were something she had CHOSEN to do, and then promptly blew it off, that would be one thing, and indicative of a character flaw. But Elena is forced to go to school — forced to take a class and complete assignments that, by all appearances, have very little to teach her that she does not already possess. Should we be surprised that she’s uninterested?

    And more importantly, should we blame her?

    I’m inclined to think not. I think that if a student can pass a comprehensive final for a class, they should be allowed to pass without having done any other work. (Of course, the risk of this policy is that students will wait and wait and then take the final and fail precisely because they haven’t done any other work.)

    By actually admitting that there are “less important assignments”, the teacher has confessed to structuring the class in a particular way, one that values completing work, even unnecessary work, over demonstrated learning. We thus know that Ms. Bennett thinks about school in a particular way, in accord with a particular vision of education. In other words, those philosophical questions about grading that she raises have already been answered by the way that she’s set things up.

    What is that way, that vision? The students, who have not chosen to be there, will write their essays and do their worksheets and make their collages and draw their chapter-summary cartoons or the student will be beaten with the grade stick until either their spirit is broken and they learn to love their busywork, or they dropout and the school washes their hands of them.

    What really has Colette Bennett’s brow furrowed is not a “philosophical” question about what’s best for Elena’s education. That’s a diversion. It’s the pricking of her own conscience, desperately trying to be heard. She recognizes, on some level, that what she’s doing is somewhat despicable, but she’s defensively trying to cast the dissonance it in terms of “helping” Elena become a better student rather than in terms of whether what she’s really doing is part of a morally questionable enterprise, ex ante.

    • +1000

      Is grading for sorting and ranking kids? Is it for determining what kids have learned in your course? Is it to be used as a system of rewards for good learning habits, and punishments for poor learning habits?

      One’s decisions about the purposes of grading in school will inform the answer to this question.

      It’s probably also worth noting that even the concept of grading itself is somewhat undefined as I have seen many variations on both what grading looks like, and how it is done.

  4. Mark Roulo says:

    I think the problem is that Colette (the teacher) hasn’t figured out what a grade is supposed to *mean*. In the article, Colette asks, “Do I pass a student who understands the materials but who has not completed the assigned work, or do I enter a failing grade?”

    This should have been decided *before* the class started. What does Colette mean by a grade of ‘A’, ‘B’, ‘C’, etc. Figuring this out after the class is over is doing things in the wrong order.

    I think we’ve seen this sort of thing posted before: Kid doesn’t do the homework, but aces the tests. Should the kid get an A or a C? It kinda depends on what you want the A or C to mean. If the grade is a measure of knowledge/ability, then an A. If the grade is (partially) a measure of doing as instructed then a C.

    It would be nice if grades could be a bit “richer” … maybe break them out into “content/knowledge”, “does work”, “participates in class”, “good art skills”, etc. But usually/often this all gets hammered into a single one-dimensional score. Figuring out what the score is supposed to mean after the class is over is doing things in the wrong order.

    • “Content/knowledge” and “does work” are important; “participates in class” is less so; “good art skills:” — I hope you’re joking!

      But “content/knowledge” and “does work” are sometimes connected and sometimes not. Supposedlhy the reason for homework is to help the kids learn the content better — and often it does. But kids are kids and they may not see that, so at some level we are always telling them they need to do the homework because it’s a course requirement. But there is another explanation too: athough we feel uncomfortable giving good grades to kids who don’t do the homework, it’s because we fear that this level of effort won’t help them in later life, where we all sometimes have to do things that aren’t necessary. So then the question becomes, are schools responsible for teaching kids responsibility? to what extent? I can tell you from many examples in my family that kids who blow off homework because it’s not fun are sometimes the kind of kid who blows off everything, but sometimes they’re just old enough to have looked into the future and seen that being a book reviewer/actuary/medical lab tech/teacher is not what they want to do. They want to do something else, which they’ve already identified, and many courses in school are pointless in terms of that goal (or at least they think so).

    • I think there’s a difference between failing to do assigned written work in English, where the purpose is to demonstrate a certain level of writing proficiency and analysis of assigned reading, and failing to do all of the assigned math homework, where the purpose is to learn how to do the problems. In the first case, the written work is inherently part of the course content; in the second case, it is not. It is practice, and some kids differ widely in the amount of practice they need in each area. In math, tests and quizzes demonstrate the extent of content knowedge, so I would see no reason to penalize a kid who gets As on all tests and quizzes but does not always complete the homework. Conversely, giving a good grade to a kid with complete, correct homework and poor quiz/test grades is fraudulent, because that kid cannot demonstrate that he has mastered the material (who really did the homework?)

      • One solution there is to assign homework “grades” to a separate category and share it separately. We call our “approaches to learning” and it encompasses all of the other skills kids are likely to be successful learners. Our summative tasks are used to determine the summative grade, which is reported separately (and has a bit more weight, as it is what is shared with other institutions, the approaches to learning is used internally, and with parents), and we do summative tasks as much as possible during class time to ensure that it is actually the student who has completed it.

      • Dave Radcliffe says:

        If a student has high test scores but did not do homework or participate in class, then it is possible that the student knew the material already, in which case he was placed in the wrong course. Another possibility is that he crammed for the tests. In that case, it seems reasonable to give the student a lower grade, because his “learning” was most likely short-term.

        • Speaking as a parent, my two most “mathy” kids were always in the top math level, and they didn’t know the material before they started the class but they learned new material very easily; they “got it” when it was first explained. They did enough homework to be confident they knew how to do the problems, but often did not do all of it. The issue was certainly not cramming for class exams; they didn’t. Both had 800 on the SAT level II math and 5s on AP calc BC, so they clearly knew the material. The older one attended a HS with an extremely strong math/sci track where kids commonly did the same with homework and were not penalized. The other one attended a different HS, where he was given a B+ in honors algebra II, despite 95+ on all tests and quizzes. We had no problem with that, until we discovered that one of the kids in his class was given an A, despite test/quiz grades of mostly Ds wtih a few Cs and Fs, because homework was complete and correct. The latter is outright fraud and educational malpractice.

        • Roger Sweeny says:

          If a student has high test scores … Another possibility is that he crammed for the tests. In that case, it seems reasonable to give the student a lower grade, because his “learning” was most likely short-term.

          If we are going to require long-term learning in order to get a good grade, very few high school students are going to qualify for good grades. That sounds snarky and exaggerated but it is crushingly, boringly true. A mundane truth that all high school teachers live with and try not to think about.

  5. I’m not sure how to teach responsibility (if there is a way), but passing along without completing required assignments, tests, etc., is a wonderful way to reinforce irresponsibility. Personally, I would say, “Listen, you knew at the outset of this course what the requirements and expectations were [presumably, this is the case – if not, then fuggedaboudit]. You chose to ignore this; now you have to suffer the consequences.”

    This type of situation is a prime example of the stupidity of compulsory education until 17/18. Some people only learn the hard way, so letting them drop out and find out firsthand how much they thereby limit their available options is the best thing you can do for them.

  6. Lightly Seasoned says:

    Oh, I fail students like this all the time. You know, in English, there is content. She didn’t complete the content (ie. reading). If you gave her a comprehensive exam over the novels read in class, she’d fail.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      The article made it sound like she had absorbed the content; she was discussing specific plot points and the various texts.

      But if what you are saying is correct, LS, and the student wouldn’t pass a comprehensive final, then I don’t understand what the teacher’s angst is about at all.

      • Lightly Seasoned says:

        Bright kids can pick up enough in class to make connections, especially with a mainstream philosophy light sort of novel as “Life of Pi” (my kid read it and got it 7th grade, and she’s not a genius). Kony and Rawanda (note: the film, not the book)? Now there’s a stretch. Did the kid read “Night”?

        The majority of my students are at or above grade level in reading and writing. Does that mean I cruise through the year, phoning it in, and still get a paycheck? In fact, my AP students are far above grade level. By this logic I should simply give them an A for being smart and nap through the school year.

        John is correct; Elena made a choice. Respect it. Sounds to me like she’s smart enough to know what it takes to pass sophomore English. Who knows why she chose to blow it off?

        • Michael E. Lopez says:


          I don’t quite follow your response. You baldly stated that “she’d probably fail” a comprehensive exam. All I did was suggest that the evidence wasn’t clear on that issue, and remark that if you were right, and the student didn’t actually absorb the content of the course, that I didn’t get why the teacher would feel like there was any sort of dilemma.

          Your response seems to indicate that you think I was making some sort of substantive point about cruising through the year if students are on grade level. I wasn’t. My only substantive point was outlined above in some detail.

          Were you replying to me, or was the threading of the comment above just a formatting error?

          • Lightly Seasoned says:

            My point was more along the lines of she hasn’t really mastered the content of the course; sorry if it was unclear. I can’t say I’m unsure about the teacher’s angst — I can guess.

  7. John Thompson says:

    Elena deserves respect. Despite the pain it causes the teacher, she should respect Elena’s choice. “Passing her on,” as we tend to do, would be wrong. It would teach irresponsiblity and undercut Elena’s chances to learn something real.

    Similarly, teachers should wrestle with these types of decisions. The decison to “fail” Elena might be hard, but it is necessary.

    And for readerswho prejudged the teacher, remember Elena made her choice after she “made connections to the Kony 2012 campaign after we watched Hotel Rwanda as part of our unit on Elie Wiesel’s Night. During another lesson, she casually suggested that over time Lady Macbeth “developed insecurities and should have taken a little Valium to settle her nerves.” She equitably included fellow students in “tossing” the plush witch doll when the class was reviewing important lines from the play, and she decided that the witches should be assigned 70 percent of the responsibility for Duncan’s death but only 20 percent of the responsibility for Banquo’s death. She noted that Macbeth was deteriorating as a “human” as his guilt increased. She empathized with Oliver Twist (“If I was an orphan, I might have been a pickpocket too … “) and suggested that the aviator in William Butler Yeats’ “Irish Airman Foresees His Death” had a “need for speed.” She understood an author’s purpose, tone, and use of literary devices.”

  8. Give her an incomplete. To get the credits for the class she will need to make up some missing assignments. If she doesn’t do this, she will not get the credits she needs for graduation. Then reassess the grading structure. The teacher should have a clear idea of what is required to pass before the first day of class.

  9. It’s not a teacher’s job to instill responsibility. She can do the work. She should pass.

    And it’s not unfair to students who did the work. She shouldn’t get more than a C-.

    • john thompson says:

      “It’s not a teacher’s job to instill responsibility.”

      Where did that come from?

      Does you district have some sort of handbook or written policy that makes such an outrageous assertion. Our job is to teach whole human beings.

      • Boy do we take ourselves too seriously. Teach the whole child? A little self righteous sounding, but I am sure you mean well. We don’t teach responsibility. You can model it perhaps, but we don’t teach it. I am positive there are areas in your life where you are not responsible. Areas that are low on your priority list. That doesn’t mean that you missed a responsibility lesson from social studies class- it just means you have other priorities. Teaching responsibility- I happened to have written a blog on that subject.

        • john thompson says:

          OK don’t try to teach responsibility. Limit yourself to teaching the subject and give her the grade that she “earned.” But don’t teach irresponsibility by passing her on.

  10. Melanie says:

    Self assessment-are we not hardest on ourselves?

  11. I agree with Cal that it’s not the teacher’s job to instill responsibility.

    It’s the teacher’s job to teach the material and to assign grades according to established standards.

    If the established standard is a subjective “does the kid know the material”, then grade accordingly. If the established standard is “A is 90+%, etc”, then grade accordingly.

    You don’t change the rules after the game has started.

    I like Michael Lopez’ point–if she doesn’t want to be there and doesn’t want to do the work, get a GED or equivalency and go do something else. Right now she’s in school for nothing more than being babysat.

    • I’d rather see the mandatory schooling age dropped to 14 or completion of 8th grade, whichever comes first. Kids who have no interest in HS only interfere with the kids who want to get an education, either vo-tech or college prep.

      However, I disagree with your comment on responsibility. Schools should demand appropriate behavior, work ethic and adherence to school rules, starting in kindergarten. Being punctual, attentive and polite, showing diligence and persistence and completing assigned tasks on time are the hallmarks of successful students and employees and instilling such habits should be part of the k-12 mission. Enabling this kind of behavior, by giving an undeserved passing grade, does kids no favors.

      • I’d agree on letting them drop out if desired, and I’d also like to see students able to “challenge” a course at the beginning of the year by taking a comprehensive final — reserve the courses for the students who don’t already know it/can’t pick it up on their own. This also leaves the ones who aren’t doing the work and claim they already know it with little excuse — if you knew it, why didn’t you take the challenge?

        • Take the challenge? I challenge you to copy the first 50 pages of the dictionary. Come on.
          Momof4- It sounds like you want to get kids ready to work in a factory line. Show up, punch your time card. Follow the rules (no thinking on your own) and be nice to your peers in line. Guess what though- There are not anymore factory jobs.

          • Really? Only assembly line bosses like their employees to arrive on time, work hard, pay attention, keep at things until they get it right, turn work in on time and be polite to co-workers and customers?

  12. Left unmentioned is the almost certainty that Elena is Hispanic, and that her skills as described in the article aren’t just adequate, but quite strong (understanding the ending of Life of Pi is beyond more than a couple adults).

    Hinted at are the many students who did all the work and got credit for doing so, but have skills far weaker than Elena.

    To fail Elena and give those less-skilled but diligent students a B is exactly the lie behind my “grades are a fraud” refrain.

    Until we have a world in which only genuinely skilled kids go on to college, it’s simply idiotic to say “Elena should get her GED” or “she’s just being babysat” or “She should suffer the consequences”, and it’s really, genuinely disgusting if Lightly Seasoned really fails a lot of otherwise competent students because of her cheap sense of morality.

  13. Jane and John are right.

  14. As someone who failed a whole year of 10th grade english, and had to REPEAT the course as a 12th grader in high school (or else I wouldn’t have graduated), Elena should be failed (this young lady needs to understand the implications of failure now, and not when she enters the workforce).

    Doing less than ‘D’ work MIGHT cut it in today’s public schools, but in the real world, she’s in for a rude wakeup.

    • Come on man. Do you know how may hugely successful people I know right now that were complete “irresponsible” failures in high school? I also know a few people that did school real well but those compliance skills didn’t transfer outside of school.
      There is a big difference in getting a letter grade on a report card and getting paid for work. money buys actual things. Grades mean very little- actually may teachers are not really sure what they mean.

      • Paul,

        Are you talking about the people who didn’t graduate from high school who went on to long term success or are you talking about kids whose irresponsibility kept them from getting As?

        • I am talking about kids who did enough to get by (c’s and D’s). They didn’t hand things in, they didn’t study- they just got through. When school was over they found something they wanted to do and then they did it. “Wanted to do.” If someone doesn’t do an assignment it is easy to call them lazy or irresponsible- that makes it their fault- we love when it is their fault.

  15. One should stick with the grading system one sets up at the start of the year, but one should be mindful to weigh assignments in a way that’s most likely to reward having mastered higher level skills over completing practice. But if everyone understood the terms of grading at the start of the year, then there’s no reason to agonize over percentages at the end.

    But most of us teach and grade in a schizophrenic system that wants grading to measure individual achievement of objectives or standards and simultaneously uses those grades to rank and sort kids for advanced classes, honors, college competency, etc.

    And while we may not have a bunch of factory jobs that we’re training folks for, some responsibility/employability skills transfer over for 80- 90% of jobs. You typically have to show up; you have to pay attention the majority of the time; you have to get along with your supervisors and co-workers, and you have to do enough of the work that you are valuable your employer. For a lot of us, you have to do nearly all of the work that your bosses assign you whether you believe it’s really important or not. To pretend that because we aren’t training people for factories that traditional expectations about behavior and responsibility go out the window is silly.

    Which is not to say that I think we should randomly assign busywork to build up kids’ tolerance to pointless work they may need to do later; but “compliance” especially early in one’s career with expectations that aren’t illegal or immoral is probably a pretty important skill in the workforce and will continue to be.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I was unclear in my initial comment, in which I said we shouldn’t “blame” Elena for what’s happened here. I firmly believe that, and am not of the mind that, from the facts we’ve got (incomplete as they may be), Elena needs any “lessons” in responsibility.

    But it would be easy to think that because I don’t think Elena has done anything wrong that failing her is a sort of unjustified “punishment”, and that therefore she should be passed. So I just want to clarify — I think the teacher should fail Elena. Yes, it’s the wrong thing to do.

    But so is passing her.

    Unlike the vast majority of people (who are really closet utilitarians even if they profess to some other moral code) I really believe in moral tragedy, and in this situation the teacher (for reasons I described earlier) has made and/or is complicit in some terrible decisions that have left two really bad options on the table: fail a student who seems to be pretty sharp and (from all appearances) knows the course material, or pass a student who hasn’t done the work.

    Of those, I see passing the student who hasn’t done the work to be the more egregious sin. The teacher announced standards, announced assignments and set expectations across the class. Students have every right to expect that their grades — as silly and misguided as they might be — won’t be undermined by capriciousness.

    But I don’t think that just because it’s the lesser of two evils, failing Elena is thereby “the right thing to do.” It’s still the wrong thing to do, and the teacher (and the school) can still be rightly criticized. Nor are failing grades “punishment” that Elena should be able to avoid by dint of not really having demonstrated any poor character. The grades are and represent whatever they are and represent, which is apparently a confused mishmash of conflicting things.

    The whole wretched situation stinks. And that was really my point.

    And where’s Mark Barnes when we need him? I actually would be really interested to hear what he thinks of this situation.

  17. Gee, adults never get assigned work they find dreary and undemanding (sarcasm).

    Pull this stunt on the job and you’d be out the door. Give her the grade she’s EARNED.

    • Michael E. Lopez says:

      But adults also don’t get *arrested* if they don’t show up for work. They just get fired.

  18. Joe Granada says:

    I guess what I would do would depend on the kind of school district I worked in. If I were to be working in a district that believes in accountability and setting and meeting expectations, then I would probably fail her. I would make sure I had a record of all communications with her and that this record showed that she was failing and she knew it, and that she was given opportunities to bring her grade up and chose not to take advantage of them. Once I was sure I had all my ducks in a row, though, I’d fail her. If it turns out I didn’t, I guess I’d roll my eyes, pass her, and make a mental note to communicate more and/or keep better records next year.

    On the other hand, were I to be working for people who basically take the attitude that “no matter what you do, if something goes wrong, it’s the teacher’s fault”, then it’s not even a close call. Pass her, and for God’s sake keep your mouth shut about it. In an environment like that, the teachers who survive are the ones who are not perceived as causing problems, and there will no doubt be enough other (much more serious) problems percolating that nobody will notice you.