Thursday, October 15, 2009

Cases in the Ethics of Grading: Mr. Green and Tracked Classes

The following is my second in a series of hypothetical cases meant to raise questions about grading practices. I'd like to recognize Kenneth Strike and Jonas Soltis for their book "The Ethics of Teaching," which inspired the style and structure of this case. Enjoy and discuss!

Mr. Green is the sole history teacher at a small high school. Last year the school experimented with having an honors science class and feedback from teachers, parents, and students was generally positive. This year the school has decided to expand its selection of honors courses and Mr. Green will be responsible for teaching the school's first section of Honors World History. The class is designed for 10th and 11th graders, almost all of whom Mr. Green has already taught in lower-level courses.

Because of the school's size, there are only enough students to warrant two sections of World History: one honors and one regular. Mr. Green is responsible for selecting which students are to be placed in the honors section, and he overwhelmingly and sensibly chooses students who have earned grades of A or B in his previous courses. That naturally leaves almost entirely C or below students for the non-honors section of World History. Mr. Green is fully aware that the creation of Honors World History amounts to tracking, a controversial subject thought by some to be outdated and unethical. To ease his own concerns, Mr. Green ensures that both classes receive the same curriculum, the same textbooks and materials, and the same styles of instruction. To make the honors section worthy of its title, he skips the chapter review day before each test, thereby slightly speeding up the class, and makes the grading scale marginally more challenging.

The first semester of the two sections of World History seems to go smoothly. Mr. Green's plan to teach both classes using the same materials and methods appears to have avoided controversy. Having not heard any complaints from students, parents, or administrators, he proceeds into the second semester using the same class policies and procedures.

Three weeks into the second semester, the Mr. Green's principal, Mary Williams, checks the grades for both honors and regular World History. She is upset to find that while there are plenty of students earning As and Bs in the honors class, not a single student in the regular World History class has a grade above a C. Ms. Williams calls Mr. Green into her office, accuses him of grading unfairly, and demands to know why the regular World History class doesn't have "its own As and Bs." Mr. Green offers several reasons, including: A) Tests usually help students raise their grades, but it's early in the semester and they haven't taken a test yet, B) The regular World History class doesn't have students with a previous record of earning As and Bs, so the lower grades should be expected; and C) It would be unfair to arbitrarily give As and Bs to students in regular World History if they weren't mastering the content at levels similar to the honors students, and doing so would take away the incentive for students to take Honors World History.

Ms. Williams is not swayed and flatly tells him that he "needs to give higher grades." When Mr. Green asks, "Does that mean I should give higher grades without regard to ability or achievement?" the she only responds by repeating herself: "You need to give higher grades."

Questions:
  1. Is it reasonable for Ms. Williams to expect each class to have a distribution of grades A through F?
  2. Suppose you raised some of the grades in the regular World History class, believing the class does deserve a broader distribution of grades. Would it be hypocritical to do this unless you also lowered some of the grades in Honors World History to include more Ds and Fs?
  3. Did Mr. Green trap himself in this dilemma by trying to make the two sections so similar? In other words, do you think he would have been more comfortable assigning each class "its own As and Bs" if the two classes were drastically different by design?
  4. Schools use grades and GPA to measure and sort students. For honors vs. regular scenarios such as this, whose responsibility is it to ensure the sorting is done fairly? Is it Mr. Green's duty to sort the students across both sections, as he was attempting to do, or should the district handle that burden through policy? (Example: Districts often choose to weight honors courses on a 5-point scale to reflect their increased difficulty over regular courses.)
  5. If you were Mr. Green, would you raise the grades? If so, why? If not, why not?