Published Online: June 19, 2012

First Person

To Pass or Not to Pass? The End-of-Year Moral Dilemma

Elena is a beautiful 16-year-old who blithely drifted in and out of my English II classroom this year without any materials. She seemed surprised to find herself in the class every day. She is pleasant, friendly, and well liked by her peers; we have a cordial relationship. Unfortunately, Elena achieved a 31 percent in English for the first quarter, which seriously damaged her grade point average for the remainder of the 2011-12 school year. Over the course of eight months, Elena continued to leave assignments incomplete and did little class work, choosing instead to text or to socialize with the students sitting around her. She lost study guides, lost materials, and lost interest in editing and revising her work. She once sent me an email telling me she "could not get online to see the assignment."

This week, I will enter her final grade. After four quarters of assigning, collecting, correcting, and returning work, I am looking at a failing grade (just below a 60 percent). Her grade must be a reflection of her academic ability. ... Or is it?

I am in the Groundhog Day of academics, in which every June I experience the same philosophical dilemma: Do I pass a student who understands the materials but who has not completed the assigned work, or do I enter a failing grade? Over the course of the year, I am careful that the work I do assign is critical to assessing student understanding. Assigned work should be meaningful and assessed accurately, a process that should result in plenty of data (tests, projects, quizzes) that determine student progress. However, and perhaps more importantly, there is also anecdotal information to consider; classroom performance is the "third leg" to the footstool of data collection.

A Capable Student

While class was in session, and Elena was engaged, she made contributions. I recently overheard her explain the complicated allegorical ending of Life of Pi to a fellow student ("The author is saying you have to decide which story is the true story…"). In March 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. I anticipate she will have a passing grade on the state-mandated assessment that she took in February.

On the rare occasion when Elena turned in work, she demonstrated that she was capable of writing on grade level. Numerous common assessments taken in class indicated that her reading comprehension was also on grade level. 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?

Questioning the Data

I have been teaching for over 20 years, and I still wrestle with the emphasis placed on grades. Do grades really reflect student ability? There are students in the class who have completed all of the work I assigned. Does their "B" grade mean they really understand 85 percent of the material? Does Elena's failing grade mean she understands less than 60 percent of the material in grade 10 English? Will enrolling her in another year in 10th grade English bare a different result? Is she prepared or unprepared to meet the rigors of 11th grade English?

These philosophical questions become more complicated as education is increasingly driven by data. Student performance is quickly aggregated and evaluated using collective (vs. class) and individual (vs. self) bits of data. Mean scores and t-tests are recorded, spreadsheets are created, and reports are generated to create "smart goals" that target instruction. Ultimately, assessment data will be used to evaluate teacher performance. Unfortunately, Elena's overall 10th grade performance in English has been measured by a lack of data.

Ultimately, I need to make the decision that relegates Elena to summer school, requires her to repeat sophomore English, or allows her to move to junior English. Every year I am in the same philosophical dilemma with a student who defies the conventions of assessment. This year it is Elena; last year it was Joshua. Every year I wonder how I can make this objective data-driven decision when the subjective experience in the classroom informs me so differently. My professional experience as an educator encourages me to see Elena as more than a unit to be measured. Finally, while I am painfully aware that the decisions she has made directly impact the decisions I now must make, she remains characteristically, blithely unaware.

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