Grading on a sympathy curve

Today’s Jam

I am an English literature teacher in a private, non-sectarian high school in the heart of a major American city. Among my students is a bright and kind young man whose schoolwork is suffering because of family and work pressures. He lives in a single-parent home, has responsibilities for his younger siblings, and must work to help his mother make ends meet. This semester he has fallen behind in his work and his grades have slipped. In order to maintain his merit scholarship (without which he couldn’t afford to attend our school), he must maintain a B+ average or higher in my course, but his work is at a B-/C+ level. I think this student has real potential, and I fear that he would not thrive in the local public school, which is severely overcrowded and has a very weak humanities program. Can I give him a B+ so he can continue his schooling without further complicating his life?

David Jaffe says…

e.David JaffeI agree with your instinct to accommodate this student’s special economic and family circumstances, However, I don’t think inflating his grade makes sense for at least two reasons.

First of all, it would undermine your own integrity as a teacher. I assume you have clear standards for how you grade. I realize you are trying to right a social injustice and be compassionate, but deviating from your own standards could come back to undermine you later with other students, especially in the high-pressure, grade-oriented environment of urban private schools.

More importantly, inflating his grade does him a disservice. Yes, this student needs to work harder than other, more affluent students because of his socio-economic situation. This is unfair. But it is his life, and — for many years to come — he will need to work harder and face more challenges than his peers, and he knows it.

Artificially inflating his grade deprives him of the opportunity to figure out how to manage his own life and meet the high educational standards of your school. There is a significant difference between B-/C+ and B+ work; if he does not learn how to meet this standard now, it will only get harder in the future. Your compassion could also have the unintended consequence of weakening his self-esteem, giving him the message that he can’t really make it without grade inflation.

I recommend thinking of his situation as one with special needs justifying accommodation. If the main issue is that he has less time than other students, perhaps you can focus his assignments. Instead of needing to read 100 pages, you could point him to the 50 most important pages. Instead of writing two 20-page research papers, he could write four five-page papers. These types of adjustments give him a fair opportunity to prove himself on a level playing field with his more affluent peers while maintaining his dignity.

Rabbi David Jaffe is the Mashgiach Ruchani/Spiritual Advisor at Gann Academy where he created and runs the Chanoch LaNa’ar initiative. He is also the Founder and Dean of the Kirva Institute. His teaching, organizing, writing and consulting explore the intersection of moral-spiritual development and ethical action in the world. He is currently working on a book about the inner-life and social activism to be published in 2013.

Devora Steinmetz says…

Devora Steinmetz140
I agree with David that you shouldn’t give the student a grade that doesn’t reflect his work. Although I have deep questions about the value of grades, if you teach in a school that gives grades, and you have clear standards for what kind of work receives each grade, it’s dishonest for you to inflate this student’s grade. Your personal conduct as well as your teaching should always be grounded in honesty.

Talk with the school administration and see whether they might be willing to continue the student’s merit scholarship, despite a low grade in your course, in consideration of both his special circumstances and the personal qualities he exemplifies in helping his family. Advocating for the student might not only solve the problem that you have identified but also challenge the school to think about evaluating students’ merits based on a variety of factors that go beyond course grades.
If you’re convinced that the school won’t be flexible regarding this student’s scholarship, offer the student a way to earn a higher grade—but not by making his course requirements less demanding than those for other students, as David suggests; that could fall into the very trap that David identifies in relation to changing his grade. Instead, for example, you might think of an additional assignment that the student can do, perhaps over the summer, if it is possible to delay giving him a course grade. (In fact, this student’s situation might encourage you to consider offering similar opportunities to other students willing to take on extra work to improve their grades.)

It would be ideal if the extra assignment could relate in some way to the student’s unique situation—that is, if he can make use of the insights and experience that he’s gaining through his family difficulties and his contributions to his family. You want to convey that, on one hand, he has to meet certain standards of work to get the grade that he needs and, on the other hand, the work that he does outside of school and the kind of person that he has shown himself to be are valued by you and the school.

Dr. Devora Steinmetz serves on the leadership team for special programs at Drisha Institute in the United States and Israel. She has taught Talmud and Rabbinics at Drisha, the Jewish Theological Seminary, Yeshivat Hadar, and Havruta: a Beit Midrash at Hebrew University. Dr. Steinmetz is the founder of Beit Rabban, a day school profiled in Daniel Pekarsky’s Vision at Work: The Theory and Practice of Beit Rabban.

Joel Alter says…

Joel Alter Profile Photo Both David and Devora offer excellent responses to this dilemma which pits emet, the priority of truth, and, if not shalom — truth’s customary counterpart — then, perhaps tzedek, justice. While it seems like income inequality is the real culprit here, that’s a risky determination to make. People of means will have other kinds of challenges that impede their academic success, and people of very limited means – and extensive outside obligations – can succeed against all odds.

What we know is that he’s not achieving at the requisite level for the merit scholarship, but he clearly merits need-based support (if he’s already receiving some, he needs more). Is there any latitude to designate differently the scholarship money so that he can remain in the school long term, without the short-term pressures of making the grade in your class?

Still, his grades really are slipping. All his teachers have a stake in his success. Ask the administration to convene an open discussion with all of his teachers together about giving him the very best possible supports for success. About this specific issue, it may be time for the teachers in the classes in which he’s currently pulling stronger grades to invite him to go for the B for a little while, so he’s free to give more attention to your class.

And what of accommodations in your class? David and Devora have each offered credible solutions, though each has its liabilities around fairness and integrity. Whether by triaging the scope of assignments or extending the grading year into the summer with extra work, it’s reasonable to modify the terms at school to accommodate his situation. You will continue to feel challenged by the question of fairness relative to other students, yet I encourage you to take the broad and long view with him.

Rabbi Joel Alter is Director of Admissions for The Rabbinical School and the H. L. Miller Cantorial School and College of Jewish Music of The Jewish Theological Seminary. Prior to his role at JTS, he spent 16 years at Jewish day schools in Washington DC, Baltimore, and Boston as an administrator and teacher of Tanakh, rabbinics, and Jewish living to children in grades K to 12.

Now, what do YOU say?

Should a teacher ever help out a student by inflating his or her grade? Weigh in by adding a comment below.

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About the Author
Ethical Jam presents contemporary ethical dilemmas and the responses of Jewish thinkers from across the world Jewish community. Ethical Jam is a project of the Center for Global Judaism (CGJ) at Hebrew College in Newton Centre, Massachusetts and of the Times of Israel, and was created by CGJ’s director Rabbi Or Rose and Hebrew College president Rabbi Daniel Lehmann. It is edited by Rabbi Sue Fendrick, Editor at CGJ. (Illustrative ‘thinking woman’ author photo via