Fudging the Numbers

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAt the end of the semester, a grading dilemma always rears its head.  Here’s one.  What do I do?

Anjali’s earliest work was dramatically incompetent, but as the semester has worn on, it has steadily improved.  That said, most of her “improved” work has been done at home, and I haven’t ruled out the possibility that someone else is “helping” her a little more than is strictly acceptable.  She’s also been chronically absent – for the last month of classes I saw her only once – and at the moment has a failing grade, due mostly to missing in-class work.

Last week, I held office hours to answer last-minute questions on their final assignments.  To my surprise, Anjali showed up.  She had a draft of her paper with her.  It wasn’t a terrible paper, but it had some serious issues: her absences meant that she hadn’t understood a number of the requirements for the assignment.  We went over some of the most important problems.  Then I leaned back in my chair.

“Anjali,” I said, “It’s good that you’re coming to see me, but it would have been much more useful if you’d come ten weeks ago.  You’ve been failing all semester, and there’s not a lot we can do about it now.  It’s highly unlikely you’re going to pass this course.”

“But miss,” she said, “I’m on probation.”

“I see,” I said.  “That’s another excellent reason that you should have started coming to see me ten weeks ago.  And an excellent reason to get lots of extra help, and attend all classes, and otherwise fulfill all your responsibilities.”

“But miss, I had a very good reason for missing so much class.  But I know I should have come to talk to you about that.”

“Not necessarily,” I replied.  “If you had a medical reason, you should go request a medical delete.  If it’s not a medical reason, then it isn’t really relevant: passing a course means you’ve learned the skills the course requires, and you haven’t been in class to learn any skills.”  I handed her back her draft.  “Do your best, and we’ll see what happens, but you need to be prepared for the possibility that you will fail.”

She got to her feet.  “Miss, do you give any kind of make-up work?  To improve my grade?”

I shook my head.  “Do your best on this last assignment, but I don’t think you’re going to make it.”

So today I corrected Anjali’s final paper.  It has many of the same problems that her draft had, and all the strengths.  If I grade it according to my rubric, it earns between 65 and a 70 percent, depending on how flexible I am about certain criteria.  This isn’t enough; she will fail the course by two or three points.

However, if I look at this paper more holistically – if I ask myself, “Is this an acceptably organized and expressed paper that shows a good understanding of the texts, a paper that might earn a good grade in another course where the assignment requirements are different?”, then the answer is “Yes.”  It’s not a bad paper at all.  It’s just that it has some major weaknesses, and those weaknesses lie in areas that were emphasized in the guidelines and that were dealt with at length in class, when Anjali wasn’t there.

If I fudge her assignment grade to a 75%, she’ll pass the course.  Now, let me be clear: given her lack of overall effort, I don’t think she’s earned a pass, and I’m never comfortable “fudging” anything.  But based on this paper alone – and assuming that it is indeed her own work, and I have no clear evidence that it’s not, especially seeing that she came to see me with it – she has the basic skills she needs to manage fine in her future courses.  I could probably examine my rubric again and make a few generous tweaks so that everything adds up to the grade she needs.  And when a student fails a course by two points, everyone involved is much more upset than if she failed by ten.

What’s a teacher to do?

Image by Miriam Wickett

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18 responses

  1. Every time I have fudged a grade even one point, that student has gone on to fail dramatically at the next level, prompting other teachers to look at me and ask why I passed them. I wouldn’t do it.

  2. I think that part of learning is taking responsibility for attending and trying to improve. I am becoming more stubborn as I face more and more of these issues, but it doesn’t sound to me as if she would really benefit from the pass. She would benefit more from repeating the course and learning what you have to teach. If she had come to you earlier, I would be more willing to say “fudge a little” but I am tired of the students who wait until the last minute and then try to manipulate me into giving them a better grade because of some kind of sob story. One of mine waited until after the final, the Monday before graduation, to say this is the last class she needs to graduate and . . . yada, yada, yada. I told her that, if she had come to me weeks earlier, I might have worked with her but “NO!”

  3. This happened so often when I was teaching. I’d get a student that had passed the prior grade/level by the hair of his/her chinny, chin, chin (whether for lack of attendance, effort, or understanding) and would then be a detriment to his/her fellow classmates.

    Sometimes there really were good reasons. But in the end it seemed like everyone involved (and some innocent academic bystanders) lost out due to the “fudging”.

  4. It’s always unfortunate when this happens. I’ve always felt that we, educators, are stuck between a rock and a hard place in these situations. On one hand we want our students to succeed and feel bad when they don’t because we are compassionate people – thus the choice of profession. On the other hand we understand the importance of hard lessons learnt. Obviously you’re uncomfortable “fudging” this student’s grade. So don’t do it. I agree with the previous comments, unfortunately it sounds like your student needs to learn the hard way and wouldn’t appreciate your “helping” her.

  5. But she hasn’t passed your course. Passing is more than the minimal skills required. She has failed the classroom portion of the course, given her 10 weeks of absences, and she has also dismally failed the “taking responsibility for her own learning proactively” implicit portion of every single college course.

  6. I would not fudge it. All things considered, the reason she will fail is that she didn’t attend class. If she had done that, she would have passed (barely). Skipping class is one of the most direct signs that a student isn’t putting forth the effort to succeed.

    As a tutor, whenever ANY student tells me that they need help because they haven’t been in class, I tell them that they need to stop skipping. Doesn’t matter when the class is (I had high-level math courses at 8 am for 3 semesters straight; can’t get much worse than that), or how boring it is. You will get more from sitting in class on your phone/laptop/tablet/whatever than you will from sitting at home. If you keep your electronics out of sight and out of mind, you get even more. Attending class is extremely important for success.

    It isn’t like attending class is particularly difficult either. It’s one area that — for most students — the only way to fail is through apathy. There are some for whom attendance is difficult, and I’ve yet to meet a professor that wasn’t accommodating in such circumstances.

    So no, I don’t think you should fudge the grade. Her failure is due to apathy. While her grade wouldn’t have been pretty had she been a bit less lazy about attendance, she still would have passed. The failure is on her.

  7. I too have fudged grades when the reasoning for failure seemed to be things that were beyond the students’ control. However, I think if it were me I would probably use the opportunity to teach a “life lesson,” as some of the other commenters have also stated.

    A severe number of absences makes attaining proficiency difficult. It isn’t merely that she can perform a task, but that she can do it to the standards. If you have to fudge the standards, then it isn’t really doing her any favors.

    The “life lesson” here, though hard, is that she needed to take responsibility long before that essay. That meant that communication and follow-up with the instructor has to take place so that the instructor can come along side the student and aid in achieving proficiency. Life happens and sometimes those challenges are beyond our control, but it is how we handle those situations that we get learning opportunities.

    Making exceptions can be hard. Making exceptions for those who may not deserve them is even harder. Making exceptions to exceptions is wrong.

  8. In a workshop on assessment I attended recently, the leader argued that markers needed to be objective and “interchangeable.” In other words, if another teacher graded this paper based on the marking criteria set by the instructor, how might they grade the paper? Now, the problem, as we all know, is that some of us are stricter markers than others despite the rubrics, but if you imagined that you were given this paper and did not know who wrote it, how would you grade it?

  9. I can’t see myself giving the benefit of the doubt in this situation, although it would cause me a lot of angst to follow that course of action. Ultimately I believe I have to look out for the benefit of the student to the best of my judgement. I have often said to colleagues that I would much rather have someone start poorly and finish strong to demonstrate real learning than someone who passes comfortable but has wildly erratic work. In this case as you describe it, however, there is no indication of a ‘strong’ finish, nor an indication that the larger skills of time management, personal responsibility, and goal-setting have been internalized.

    Of course, if she had actually come to me several weeks ago, tried her best to catch up, and STILL done just a couple of points below par, I might reconsider because there was a higher commitment to taking responsibility and fixing problem areas on display, but as it stands, I just can’t see that it would be good to ‘fudge it’ in this scenario.

  10. If her excuses would have been legitimate, I think you would’ve seen her sooner. It’s obvious to me she is not taking her responsibility, her part in learning, her studies seriously and just wants to skate by getting a “break” from the teacher.

    If you have to ask the question, “What’s a teacher to do?”, then you shouldn’t fudge the points. She didn’t earn the minimum. And….grade according to the standards to be met for your class. Sure, we can all say what we teach transfers to other classes, but if she didn’t meet the standards for your content, then she didn’t pass.

    We all hate to fail students, but….they still learn by failing. She has the chance to take it again. We have too many individuals in our society who just skate by. Please don’t create another one.

  11. I think if you do any “fudging,” it should be in your allowance of make up work. I don’t think you should tweak the rubric or her grade, mainly because that would be unfair to everyone else AND she didn’t prove that she earned it because the final draft had many of the same mistakes as the rough draft. However, in your situation I might contact her and tell her the deal: she is going to fail by only a few points, but give her one last option — allow her to revise the weaknesses in the paper. If she completes it in time, I would average the paper’s first grade and the revised grade. If she did what she was supposed to do, she would earn enough points to pass and would show better understanding of the material.

  12. I have somewhat mixed feelings about this. On the one hand I agree that she should have been in class; there’s never an excuse for that many absences and if her absences are the cause of the failure alone, then she should be failed accordingly. On the other hand, it sounds like you already told her she was going to fail so she didn’t put that much effort into the necessary revisions to her paper. Do you have time to let her revise it one more time to see if she has actually learned the necessary skills? I only suggest it because you specifically point out that the paper has “many of the same problems that her draft had, and all the strengths.” Given that, if it were my student, I would confront her and show her how close her grade is to passing and give her the opportunity to actually finish the assignment the correct way. Sometimes that little spark of hope is enough to make a student push themselves to the next level.

  13. For the benefit of the student and the next teacher, a ‘tweak’ to 65% may be more appropriate, that would be grading her by a 10% fail, not 2%, eliminating the delicate subject of failing by 2%. Half that fail would be for not attending the classes that were necessary, without an effort to inform or communicate a reason. The other 5% would be for the major weaknesses in her final paper that you emphasized in those missed classes. I don’t believe free rides help anyone, that’s not saying I haven’t looked for a few myself!.

  14. You care about your students, that is why this tortures you. Don’t ever lose that. If I fudge a grade it is because I have seen overall improvement. A weak paper in the beginning, but as the semester progressed, the student got better and better, showed more interest, etc. I might not let the early assignments take down the final grade.

    But this girl is not showing improvement and is not showing up. I would give her the grade she earned.

  15. There are two things happening here:

    1. It is unclear if this work is the student’s.

    2. The student might have gained proficiency but still fails a basic grasp of success (showing up).

    If you want to teach and enforce success, then you are compelled to fail this student.

    If you want to reach and enforce competency then you must weigh the merits of the work against the student failing miserably in her next course.

    It seems to me that a trade-off _could_ come with assigning an in-class make-up essay for this student and other border cases. I wouldn’t go down this road myself, but this would at least let the student(s) complete an assignment in class without external influence or assistance. It would help you differentiate between ineptitude and apathy.

    Of course, this approach assumes your students can sit and write something cogent in an hour; as I gather varying proficiency levels in English, this might not be feasible for you.

    I would likely fail the student and explain to them that I couldn’t bring myself to rob them of a pivotal learning experience, that of earned failure, when it was still, in the course of their lives, fully-recoverable. I would fear that the lesson imparted otherwise would be “but miss…” trumps all other work, assigned and extra.

  16. As a student who had academic problems similar to Anjali’s–chronic absenteeism, in particular–I can say that failing probation is a nearly necessary step to becoming a good student again once things have gotten to this point. It took the shock of dismissal to make me really look at my behavior, and the effort of regaining admission to change it. If, right now, I was given the power to decide whether or not my professors fudged a pass for me back then, I would fail myself without regret.

  17. Thank you all so much for your comments and suggestions. Anur, your comment in particular really drove something home to me, and reinforced my feeling that I would be doing Anjali a disservice by pushing her through. I reviewed her essay again this morning, and graded it twice: once, being as harsh as I could imagine, and the second time, doing my best to reward her for everything I could. The second grade seemed to be the fairer to me, and that’s the grade she received, but she will still fail the course by two lousy points. This is the only resolution that doesn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth, and if she comes back to me about it, I will encourage her to go to Grades Review. Thanks again, everyone; sometimes it’s difficult to believe in my own perspective, so it helps to have it reinforced by others!

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