There seems to be a growing trend to revise grading practices so that courses are easier to pass. Some have called such practices the “soft bigotry of low expectations,” but how is bigotry ever soft?

When inflationary practices began several years ago at my middle school, teachers and administrators were quiet about them; they weren’t sure they wanted parents to know that, for example, if a student turned in nothing or made a zero on a test, the teacher nevertheless gave the student a 60–or excused the grade altogether. Or maybe they didn’t want parents to know that they were giving one student a much easier test than others because in the past that student had not performed well on a test. Now it seems much more publicly acceptable not only to admit to such practices, but for teacher leaders to claim they are “motivational” and lead to “greater success.”

Grades can affect student learning significantly, so it is important to consider carefully the implications and consequences of the practices we choose, as well as their purpose and transparency.

About 7 years ago, just after the effects of NCLB starting sinking into public school districts everywhere, my principal called me into her office and said that the grades for some of my black students needed to improve, and that, in fact, one of our new district goals was improving black students’ grades. She wanted to know what was I going to do about that since I had a few black students (and a few non-black students as well) at the time who were failing.

It concerned me that my principal seemed interested only in the demographic group, not the individuals. No names were mentioned, and no questions were asked about why certain students were failing; she just asked me to make that demographic group look better on paper.

I was also concerned that my principal was focused more on grades than learning. I asked if she were asking me to simply change their grades from failing to passing, and she said that would be fine, confirming to me that she was concerned more about a statistic than student learning. It was not clear how changing a grade would help the student learn or perform any better on the end-of-grade assessment, but she did not appear to be worried about that.

I explained that I felt a responsibility to parents and students to report student progress honestly. In an effort to help her understand, I elaborated: I had seen cases where students made a C or B in a class but when the final assessment came at the end of the year, students failed, and their parents were angry that they had not been told of their children’s lack of progress. I understood parents’ anger at the school or teacher for not letting them know their students needed help sooner. I was working with some failing students outside of class, and would have been happy to work harder to motivate them to meet the standard, but I couldn’t give them a grade they had not earned and still respect myself as their teacher. I knew they were capable of the work; I expected them to do it and was willing to help them. I also had suggestions about how other school resources might support my efforts.

My argument seemed to have no impact on her.

The situation reminds me of a section from a book many teachers have read called Sahara Special by Esme Codell, a former teacher herself. In the story, Sahara is a young girl who is not doing well in school because she refuses to participate. Her mother goes in for a conference and tries to explain to the teacher that Sahara actually likes to write. The teacher says,


“Well, we need something to show that you like to write, don’t we, Sahara?” Ms. Singer smiled. “We certainly don’t have any schoolwork to make that point…she doesn’t do it here.”

       “You’re saying she doesn’t do her work? So take care of your business! Fail her! Fail her like a normal kid! The failure will be between me and my daughter then. You won’t like it if her failure is between me and you.”

       “There are serious repercussions to retention…”

       “Blah, blah, blah!” My mother can be very rude.

       So they promised to fail me…

       The door closed and we stood out in the hall. I knew they were talking about my mom behind the glass, saying mean things about her, saying What Sort of Mother Would Deny Her Child Individualized Attention. But Mom was smiling and I was proud, really proud of my mom not being afraid of failure. I am. I’d sooner not try than fail. They may think I am stupid, but I’m not. Knowing I am not stupid is enough for me, I’m enough for me. When my mother smiled at me, I could see I was enough for her, too.


Why are we so afraid of failure? Failure can be a great lesson; and it creates an opportunity to learn the content you missed and to learn about yourself and the system in which you work. Had my school passed me when I deserved an F I got in 7th grade science, I could not have respected the teacher or the system. I also would never have learned that I must earn my grade, a lesson for which I am grateful.

There is no altering the truth no matter how hard we try to mask it. Students should know their truth, because the sooner they do, the sooner they can choose what to do with it.

Retention is another issue of course, which may or may not be involved when we give students the grade they earn in each class. It can be largely avoided, however, if we find authentic ways to motivate students, one of which being that we find what they love to do and use that to motivate them (see “Elementary, My Dear Watson” post).

But let’s look beyond the motivations of administrators or NCLB since they don’t seem to be interested in learning as much as in school statistics. Are grades a good vehicle for motivating students as some teacher leaders claim? Should grades be used as anything other than an honest report of a student’s progress toward mastery?

This is a much more difficult question in public than in professional schools (or some private schools) because the students in a public school classroom might be extremely wide-ranging in ability or in pre-requisite knowledge. We have ways of dealing with that, though. For example, if a student is placed in my class who cannot speak English very well, we may decide on a grading system or change of class schedule that will make sense for that student. We may decide to put that student on a pass/fail system which is decided on effort, attendance, and participation if we decide that just listening and observing will help that child learn through immersion. Or, if a student’s language skills are low enough, s/he might be placed in an ESL class. We also have a place for a comment in our report card that indicates the child was not graded according to grade level standards, so parents or school officials will know that student needed special criteria for reporting progress. But these cases are exceptions and are dealt with as such. How do we grade most students—those without special exceptions?

Ideally grades are based on the demonstrated mastery of the material taught. Why? Because that is all a teacher can do or know for certain. I may have a student who has good writing skills but does not demonstrate them in class. I have to grade the child on the work submitted, not the work I imagine s/he can do—as in the case above. We don’t want a student’s grade determined by the teacher’s imagination.

A good teacher works with the student and parents to motivate the child to show his or her work (unlike the case above), but the grade must be what was demonstrated. A grade is what the student earns, not what the teacher feels like giving based on all sorts of perceptions that may or may not be accurate. If we do not grade based on what students earn, grades will depend on the teacher students get instead of the work they do—or the counselor or the administrator who needs certain statistics to make his or her school look good—or the parent with political clout. Many of us have probably exploited situations like that—take an easy class to get our grade average up, or put our kid in the easy teacher’s room to build his or her self-esteem because that is more important to us than knowledge acquisition. We can also get rear-ended by such a system when it turns out I can’t get the desired teacher or later need the skills I didn’t learn.

Grades are not a prize or reward; they are feedback about progress. To load them with other meanings is to confuse the student, vary the standards from teacher to teacher, undercut their significance, and falsify school and student data–which, in a courtroom, would be considered intentional fraud. We make decisions based on grades all the time. If we pass students who shouldn’t pass because we use inflationary practices, those students are being denied services and attention they need. We are discriminating against those who need the school’s services the most. The students with the best grades—and those with parents who make sure students earn their grades–are not as impacted by this discrimination because most of them do their work. Many have parents who make sure they do because they want a good education for their children. Educators should be looking out for those less fortunate in the same way if they truly care about their future success.

In my district teachers are made to feel they are not successful if their students make Ds or Fs, shifting the focus of the problem from the students to the teachers. So naturally many grading strategies have been implemented to make teachers feel like rigor is preserved but their students’ grades improve, such as automatic free passes, extra credit, easier rubrics, 60s instead of 0s, and tests that have the same questions as the study guides. Unfortunately learning diminishes for everyone under such practices, but the lowest performing students are the ones who suffer most and the ones who are being most discriminated against by this type of system. They are misled as to their perhaps severe lack of mastery and given easier material so they are not expected to think critically. As teachers, life is a lot easier the lower we keep our expectations, students are never disappointed in their grades, and they like us more (as do our administrators). And down the road, when students are cursing their lot because they can’t get a job, we won’t be around, will we?

Ironically, at a time when “data-driven education” is a major trend, we have never been further from it.

It is not easy to take a stand against district policy, but teachers and parents can and should come together through the PTA, the local media, tenured teacher committees, or other organized groups to stop this kind of discrimination if they care about student success. They should demand transparent grading practices and honest feedback. Then they should demand the school meet the needs the feedback indicates so students are not held back in learning or in grade level.

To do otherwise is to discriminate against those with the greatest needs. We will never close the gap if we don’t have accurate data about who or what is involved in it.