Cases in the Ethics of Grading: Mrs. Lemon and Troy Mann

The following is my third 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!

Troy Mann is a struggling student in Mrs. Lemon's Algebra 2 class. By all accounts from Troy's previous two math teachers, he barely passed Algebra 1 and Geometry, and his Geometry grade might have been artificially inflated to compensate for his weak skills coming out of Algebra 1 and suspicions of a possible undiagnosed learning difficulty. Still, in both classes, Troy's modus operandi was the same: "coast" through as much of the semester as possible, do as little work as possible, and then apply just enough sincere effort to avoid being ineligible for sports. Troy understood if he failed Mrs. Lemon's Algebra 2 class he would be ineligible for the beginning of the second semester, meaning he would miss most of basketball season. Troy expected to start on the varsity team, and Mrs. Lemon happened to be one of the biggest basketball boosters at the school.

Using athletic participation as a motivator, Mrs. Lemon and Troy began to meet almost every day after school to improve his math grade. Unfortunately for Troy, his lack of effort earlier in the semester and in previous classes left him unprepared for the rigors of Algebra 2, and most of his time with Mrs. Lemon was spent relearning skills from Algebra 1. After six weeks Troy was showing great improvement on his Algebra 1 skills, but was running out of time in the semester to master Algebra 2 skills well enough for the final exam. Unable to fully catch up, Troy badly failed the final exam and received an F for the course.

When school resumed after winter vacation, Mrs. Lemon was called to the principal's office to meet with Troy's parents. This was the first time Mrs. Lemon had met Troy's father, but had talked previously on several occasions with Troy's mother, who worked in the school district administration office. The principal explained to everyone that a failing grade would mean Troy would be ineligible for basketball. Both of Troy's parents emphasized how important sports are to Troy, and without sports he may not have any motivation to be successful in school. Troy's parents also expressed their difficulty in understanding how Troy could spend all those hours after school, learning and showing steady improvement, and still fail the course.

Mrs. Lemon explained that to pass the course students must show mastery of Algebra 2 objectives, and while Troy should be commended for remediation of his weak math skills, it was not worthy of Algebra 2 credit. When the principal asked if there was any way of making Troy eligible for the second semester (implying Mrs. Lemon should change the grade to passing), Mrs. Lemon bluntly suggested that he ask the athletic director to ease the eligibility standards instead of compromising her own academic credibility. With that, the meeting ended and Troy's parents left.

Before letting Mrs. Lemon go back to class, the principal stopped her and said, "I want to tell you a little story. When I was in college, I really struggled in some of my classes and for one class I failed the final and was going to fail the class. The professor for that class, instead of sticking me with that grade, brought me over to his house, made me dinner, and went over the test item-by-item. I didn't retake the test – he was just helping me understand the material. He changed my final exam grade and I passed the class. Think about sitting down with Troy and doing him the same favor."

  1. State content standards are meant to guide curricula, but should mastery of that content be the sole determinant of a student's grades? Should Troy's grade reflect his effort and skill improvement?
  2. Was it ethical for the principal to ask Mrs. Lemon to consider changing Troy's grade in the presence of Troy's parents? What's more important, the perception of a principal's fairness and neutrality or his/her willingness to be open and helpful to students and parents?
  3. What do you think was the principal's intent of telling the personal story after the meeting?
  4. If you were Mrs. Lemon, would you change Troy's grade?