The Case of a Contested Grade and a Charge of Racism

March 28, 1990 5 min read

The following is a case study used in the teacher-education program at Pace University.

Leigh Scott felt the flush slowly leave her face as she watched Aaron Washington go out of her classroom, slamming the door behind him. It was the end of the second grading cycle--students had received their report cards yesterday. Leigh had just taken off her coat, and was on her way to the teachers’ room to get a cup of coffee before the bell rang when Aaron came into the room.

He began, “We got to talk about my grade.” It was clear that he was angry.

“You gave me a D.”

“You did D work.”

“So did Dale and he got a C.” Aaron was leaning over the desk toward Leigh.

“Aaron, this is not a good time to talk about this. The bell is going to ring in a few minutes. Why don’t you see me after school this afternoon?”

Aaron shook his head at her suggestion. “I have practice after school. We have to talk now.”

Now it was Leigh’s turn to shake her head. “This is not a good time--I have to get ready for homeroom. Besides, there’s not really anything to talk about.”

Aaron straightened up, took a couple of steps back from the desk, and said, “You gave a white kid who got the grades I did a C and you gave me a D. I even did more homework than Dale. I say we have something to talk about.”

Leigh capitulated. “Come in tomorrow morning at 7:30 and we’ll talk before homeroom period.”

Aaron nodded, strode out of the room without another word, and let the door slam as he left.

Leigh had been teaching social studies at Littleton High School for 11 years and this was the first time a student had accused her of racial bias. Students had complained about grades before, and Leigh had always been willing to reconsider a grade. But, she had never had a student suggest that she was biased. Leigh had spent her entire teaching career at Littleton, so she had been teaching classes which were mixed racially and ethnically for a long time. She considered herself color-blind when it came to assigning grades.

Littleton High School, a sprawling building without much personality or character, was built in the 1950’s. Academic departments were located along different wings of the building. Students were placed into one of four academic tracks: A, for honors students; D, for above-average students; G, for average students; and J, for remedial students.

There were 11 social-studies teachers, one of whom served as the department chairperson. Teachers8were responsible for five classes a day, with the honors classes typically assigned to senior faculty. Newer faculty taught mostly average and remedial sections. Leigh taught an honors-level American history course, two freshman D sections of world history, and two G sections of American government.

Leigh graded her G section classes on the following requirements each cycle:

Tests (usually three or four, depending on the material).

Homework, which was collected three times a week.

A project.

Participation in class discussions, based on the textbook readings.

The textbook was written on an 8th-grade reading level. Leigh’s tests were a combination of vocabulary, multiple choice, and short-answer items. Leigh didn’t require G section students to answer essay questions. Students selected projects from among several choices, including writing papers, constructing something appropriate to the topic, presenting a paper to the class, or writing book reports on pertinent readings.

During homeroom period, Leigh consulted her grade book and confirmed that Aaron’s information was accurate. Neither student had done particularly well this grading cycle. Both had gotten mostly D grades, with an occasional C. Neither particiel15lpated in class discussions unless she called upon him. However, she knew that she had given Dale the higher grade because of his effort, not because of his color. Dale was a learning-disabled student who was mainstreamed into Leigh’s class.

Typically, a mainstreamed student would be placed in a J section. Dale’s case was an exception. He was in a G-level class because his Resource Room teacher, Meg Dament, had requested this placement, feeling that Dale needed a more academic environment and a higher- achieving peer group than he would have in a J section.

Meg and Leigh had known each other since Leigh came to Littleton. Leigh admired Meg’s dedication and perseverance on behalf of her students. It was not easy to convince high-school teachers to work with classified students, but of the four Resource Room teachers in the building, it was Meg who made the most regular-class placements. It was clear she cared deeply about the students she served, and wanted them to have whatever educational normality she could access for them. Meg was able to mainstream her “best” students into G-level classes. She actively sought teachers who would be responsive to her students’ needs, and to their efforts.

Meg had requested Leigh as Dale’s teacher. Leigh had under4stood that Dale was not a very good reader, and that he would not volunteer in class. Leigh and Meg spoke regularly about Dale’s progress, as well as the classroom requirements. Meg helped Dale prepare for Leigh’s class and he had shown real improvement since the first cycle, when his grade had been a D.

Additionally, Dale’s attitude in class was positive. He had learned to exhibit “teacher-pleasing behaviors"--he looked attentive, he tried to take notes, he almost always carried his textbook and notebook and a pencil, and he never disrupted the class. Aaron had a different style. He would put his head on his desk, he seldom brought materials to class, and he often talked to friends while Leigh was lecturing.

Nevertheless, their grades during the cycle were nearly identical and Aaron was demanding an answer. Leigh drove home that day wondering what she would tell Aaron during their appointment the following morning. Aaron’s anger, coupled with his charge of racism, exacerbated her anxiety about their meeting. She also knew that she would have to figure out what she might do to prevent this from happening in the future, since she anticipated that she would continue to serve mainstreamed students and she believed they should be rewarded for effort and improvement.

1989 by Rita Silverman, William Welty, and Sally Lyon. Reprinted by permission.

A version of this article appeared in the March 28, 1990 edition of Education Week as The Case of a Contested Grade and a Charge of Racism