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The End-of-the-Year Number Crunch – to Pass or not to Pass?

July 11, 2012

Teacher Musings:

I must admit stealing the second part of this title from a great Education Week article I read awhile ago by Colette Marie Bennett entitled To Pass or Not to Pass? The End-of-Year Moral Dilemma.  In this article Bennett discusses a common dilemma: What do you do about a student who seems to have to skills necessary to progress to the next grade-level, but who didn’t do enough work to get above a 60% (generally considered a “passing” grade).

As I read this article I completely related to it.  I know and deal with this dilemma every year.  However, as I started considering the students that passed and failed my class this year (and in previous years) I started to realize it was more complicated that the single example in the article.  The way we measure whether a student progresses to the next grade level is their grade in a course, but grades are often measures of things far beyond a students skill level or knowledge of content.  Grades can measure everything from work turned in on time, a student having his/her materials, the amount of homework completed, even attendance and behavior in class.  I don’t dispute the importance of measuring these things   Every year I have at least one student that Iknow has the same skills in reading and/or writing as others who are getting promoted, but the student(s) in question doesn’t have the “study skills” or the time management skills to “keep up with the work.”

And this problem manifests itself another way too.  I often have students that get promoted from my 10th grade class into 11th grade who don’t necessarily read on a 10th grade level.  However, these students do every scrap of work, complete every assignment on time, and, with my portfolio system, revise and resubmit until their work meets my standards.  These students learn a lot and grow a lot from doing this work, and they leave my class better readers and writers than they were when they entered.  But when they enter reading at a 7th grade level, and maybe leave at a late 8th or 9th grade level, is it still ok for me to send them to 11th grade?  This also must take into account the fact that they are being promoted to the next grade with some classmates who actually have higher skills than they do, but poorer grades.

Every year I send students to the next grade level with good enough grades, but questionable skills, and some students repeat my class with low grades, but probably adequate skills.  This topsy-turvy retention doesn’t represent the whole situation – there are plenty of students who have the skills to be promoted and are, and plenty of students who need to repeat a year of 10th grade English and do.  However, the dilemma about retention and promotion is not only troubling because it presents a very real quandary about very real students every June, but it also calls into question the entire nature of assessment and schooling.  Is school really about students gaining skills and content knowledge, and advancing to the next level when their skills and content knowledge are ready for new challenges?  Is school about promoting growth and development, so that everyone who improved in someway should progress, even if they don’t always meet the “standards” of a grade level?  Is school about developing “study skills” such as time management, etc., or even about making sure students become compliant with “rules” that we think will help them out in the non-academic world?

I think that school is really about all these things.  The problem seems to be that not everyone agrees on which ones matter most, or which ones should matter for promotion or retention.  No matter what you think and/or feel about this issue, as a teacher, in June, you have to make a choice about who gets promoted, who doesn’t, and that choice is often dictated both by your own philosophy and by a way of grading that is structured by a school or district.  For example, in my school, homework has to count for something, even if I have a ton of flexibility about how I do this.

This year I really thought my portfolio system would make my grades definitive markers of a student’s skill level and content knowledge.  I knew this system wasn’t a silver bullet, and I knew that some actual letter grades might be higher or lower than what I thought it should be for the student’s skill level, but I really thought it would help balance out the promotion/retention issue.  In some ways it did – this year I only had three students who will need to repeat my class, but who I think read well enough that they might have been able to be promoted.  However, with all three of those students, I got so little work from them, it is hard to say whether or not my assessment is accurate.  I also “passed” four students that made me cringe, because they read so far below grade level and write so poorly, but they did enough work and enough revising (and revising, and revising) to pass.  These numbers are lower than the ones I have faced in years past, and I also feel more confident about my assessment of all my students skills because of that portfolio system.  But this June made me really wonder not just about the “point” of grades in my class, but about how grades fit into school culture.  I want grades in my class to mean something definitive about a student’s achievement, but I also am working within a system that is far more complex than that.  How I will pragmatically deal with these two realities is something that will probably take me quite a while to work out.

Yummy Stuff:

This might seem like a strange thing to share in the middle of summer, but this lentil recipe was a hit in our house this winter and spring, and with a baby on the way any day now, it is on my mind as a good meal to make a lot of and then freeze!  This is the Lentil and Bacon Pot ‘o Stew from Hearty Vegan Meals, adopted a bit for our tastes and easiness of prep.


1 cup brown lentils
1 and 1/2 cups of water
1 veggie bullion cube
2 TB olive oil
4 cloves of garlic, minced
1/4 – 1/2 red onion, minced
2 carrots, finely chopped
2 stalks of celery, finely chopped (optional)
2 large leeks, white and light green parts, cut into thin slices and then quarter rounds, rinsed thoroughly
1/4 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper
1 recipe for Tempeh Bacon


1) Put lentils, water and bullion cube in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Then, simmer, uncovered, for 20-30 minutes.  check for doneness after 20 minutes, and then cook until lentils are tender, but still firm.  Add water if necessary.
2) Heat the olive oil over medium-high heat.  Then, saute the veggies for about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper
3) Stir the cooked lentils in with the veggies.  Simmer for 5 minutes.
4) Crumble the bacon into the stew and heat through.  Serve and enjoy!



From → Assessment, Dinner, Lentil

  1. Marisa B permalink

    Hey Marie, excellent points!! This year, I attempted to deal with the “skilled enough, but doesn’t do work” by moving to a 13 point grading system (A+=13, A=12, A-=11, B+=10, etc). The issue with the 100 pt system is that a 0 has a huge impact on grades. For ex, a 100% on HW1 and a 0% on HW2 means you have an F with 50%. In my system, it would have been a 13 and a 0 which averages to a C/C+ at 6.5. Now that I did this for an entire school year this year, I’m spending the summer reflecting on this. A big problem I discovered was that as long as the student did something okay once, it was hard to get an F. I modified the system in term 2 to say that even if your total average was passing, you would receive an F if you failed any tests (they were allowed re-takes). I kind of like this system bc I felt in the end, most students’ final grades made sense to me…but I’m still thinking on it.

    • Thanks for the comment! Your system makes a lot of sense. That whole numerical system of going, essential from 60 to 0 has always been strange. I also really appreciate it when you say you “kind of like this system bc I felt in the end, most students’ final grades made sense to me.” Sometimes I think we get too caught up in the numbers, and forget to look at the whole picture. This was also one of the ways I measure how successful a system was – did it make sense generally, given what I know about a kid!

      As usual, you show great thoughtfulness and insight 😉 Thanks for sharing!

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