SOMETHING TO THINK ABOUT FOR TEENS #15: A Teacher’s Dilemma About Grades

Hi this is Michael Josephson with something to think about.

When I was a law professor, I administered multiple choice tests that I corrected by hand. One day, Ron came to my office informing me I made a scoring error – in his favor.

I was impressed with his honesty and told him so as I was changing my records. Ron was horrified.  “You’re going to lower my grade?” he sputtered.  “Of course” I said, “I’m entering the correct score.”

Ron said: “I would have never come to you if . . . .” H stopped mid-sentence. He didn’t have to finish – it was obvious. He expected to be praised for his integrity but he thought I would also reward him by allowing him to keep the higher grade.  He left my office angry muttering that I punished him for his honesty.

I shared this story with a fellow teacher. He agreed with Ron.

“I have a very high regard for honesty, that’s why I had to correct the record. Isn’t it dishonest to let him keep a grade he didn’t earn? Would that be fair to other students? Integrity is not about seeking advantage; it’s about doing the right thing — even if it costs more than we want to pay. If Ron remained silent about the error it would have been as dishonest as keeping too much change.”

My colleague said I was missing the big picture. The grade was less important than encouraging honesty.

I protested. “His reward for his honesty was my respect and his self-respect. I didn’t punish him or lower his grade – I just corrected my error .  A score on an exam is about competency, not virtue. Besides, he wasn’t really virtuous. His display of honesty was counterfeit. If he expected praise at no cost it was a calculated tactic not a trait of character. Why would I want to encourage that?”

My friend laughed. “You are really making a big deal out of this. I’ve got to go to class.”

What do you think? What would you have done?

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Comments 11

  1. I explain this scenario to my kids at the beginning of school, and tell them I expect them to come to me even when it will lower their grade. I tell them you are either honest or not..there is no partially honest person. Amazingly I have a fair number of kids who cOme to me and show me errors that lowers their grade. I always praise them for their honesty and correct their grade

  2. When I was a student in college, I was enrolled i n a Roman History course. The professor assured the students that exams would be taken solely from his lecture notes, and the assigned text would be used as a supplemental instructional resource. I took copious notes and attempted to purchase the text, but it was out of stock. Not to worry, the professors test would be based solely upon his lectures.

    Test # 1 came along (after the cutoff to withdraw without obtaining the professors signature). To my dismay, and that of a number of my classmates, the test was based predominantly on a text which was not available for purchase and had little to do with his notes. Because I failed the exam, I approached the professor for approval to withdraw. He refused, citing the fact that I should have been better prepared and a failed exam was not justification for dropping the course.

    I knew personally of 3 other students who had lied to the professor about their reason for withdrawing (though they left the class for the same reason I was attempting to). Incensed, without naming names, I informed him that I was well aware that others (there was actually a mass exodus) had obtained his signature through fraudulent means. I asked him if he was really that determined to penalize my honesty, that he would require that I continue in the class, while allowing others who were dishonest to be released. I pleaded (begged?) with him to show mercy for my honesty and consider the lesson he was teaching me if he failed to release me. He reconsidered and released me from the class. It is the only “W” on my record in an otherwise outstanding academic career.

    I became a high school teacher. When faced with the opportunity described in this article, I weighed the cost and determined that the lesson I was trying to teach this particular student was the virtue of honesty. I rewarded that student for his honesty (for correcting my error). By not lowering his grade, he received a score he hadn’t earned, but the more important lesson was honesty. He could have kept silent, and he would have received the higher score. Instead, he brought the error to my attention. So for his dishonesty, he would have received the higher score. I hardly felt it appropriate to give him a lower score for being honest.

    In the end, it was my valuation that the greater lesson was to demonstrate that honesty was the appropriate path. Of course, we had the discussion about the reality that such honesty could also result in a cost.

  3. I agree. He didn’t come forward because he thought it was the right thing to do; he came forward because he thought there was some sort of advantage to himself for doing so. He was looking for a higher grade not earned on the test and a higher grade not earned on his character.

  4. I am in agreement with you on the lowering of the grade. I believe that as a society the acceptance of “sin of ommission” and lack of self accountability has caused some true set backs of ones charater. Life is about the shaping and molding process…

  5. I believe what you did was the right thing to do, he did not earn the higher grade he wished to keep and his honesty was disingenuous, he was only seeking praise for pointing out your mistake.

  6. I would have praised his honesty and then split the difference. If his original score was close to a higher grade I would have rewarded him. If it was not even close, I would have not changed his grade.
    Every teacher has the descretion to reward motivation, honesty and drive, and this could have been one of those opportunites. So many of our students are unmotivated and just occupy seats in order to move on that this rare one deserves our respect in some fashion. Maybe not a grade change as I mentioned above but something positive.
    .

  7. Mr. Josephson,

    I have little respect for Ron in believing he still “deserved” the higher grade — and even less respect for your colleague who felt you were making too big a deal out if. There may be a lot of gray area in the world, but honesty is a black and white issue. A lower (correct) grade seems a small price to pay for the reward of maintaining one’s integrity. My short answer to your response is this: WWJWD — What Would John Wooden Do? The answer is crystal clear: give Ron the grade he earned. Kudos to you, Michael.

  8. Hi Michael, I’ve heard this story before and my opinion has evolved over time. At first I agreed with you completely. Now I have come to understand it was an opportunity for teaching Ron another lesson in ethics. You were correct to change the test score to accurately reflect performance. Ron needed to learn that. Additionally he did feel the need to report the error and some way of supporting that positive behavior could have been devised. A good teacher can be very creative in building a positive learning environment.

  9. I agree with you as well. Integrity is integrity. I teach 3rd-5th grade so I would take great care in explaining why I would lower the grade – just as I would raise the grade if the error was in his favor. There are other things I can do to “reward” him for his honesty: Praise him for his integrity and let him know that my opinion of him had risen ten-fold. What a leader in a child so young!

  10. I am not a teacher. However, everyone looks at the most sensible way to deal with the situation. But I will treat this differently. I will reward Ron for his action and explain to him why I will keep the high grade. That way I will encourage him to be honest all the time. I am rewarding the boy with a long-term lifetime “who knows” he will become in every aspect he faces real world scenarios. On the other hand, how would he behave after being rejected for his action later on in life?

  11. Was the teacher held accountable for the grading mistake? If there had been an implication for the teacher’s record, would he still change the grade?

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