On Retroactively Lowering School Grades

One day, at the New Hampshire middle school where I taught, a school administrator informed me that one of my students was going to have her previous quarter’s grades lowered to all Ds, due to excessive absences during the school year. I was stunned. We do that? We lower grades that students earned, after the fact, as a punishment/incentive to change behavior?

Not only did our school have that policy written into the student handbook, but so did the district’s high school.

I brought up some objections, to no avail. It seemed so fundamentally wrong to me that, years later, I am still bothered enough by it to write this blog post.

How many schools have similar policies in place? It’s hard to find that information through internet searches. Interestingly, I’ve come across many schools that expressly forbid teachers from lowering grades due to absences. Here are some reasons that the practice should not be tolerated in your school:

1. It violates an implicit contract. As any middle school educator will tell you, kids believe that their grades are based entirely on whether a teacher likes or not. We are constantly explaining to kids that this is an objectively false belief. One’s grades, we explain, are based on one’s work. Although subjectivity plays a role in grading some assignments, if you turn in your homework, the teacher will enter the corresponding grade, usually into a computer program that adds up everything at the end of a grading period and spits out a final grade. In other words, our implicit contract is: your grades are based on merit! You do the work, you get the grades, regardless of your relationship with your teacher.

But, with this asinine policy of retroactive grade lowering, marks that you have earned can be taken from you after the fact. This flies in the face of everything we’ve been telling these children their entire school careers! Not only can we alter the reality of the grades you’ve earned, but, at least in the case I saw at my school, the policy can be capriciously applied based on how we feel about you! When the school administrator told me about the impending lowering of this girl’s previous grades, I brought up another one of my students – a golden boy beloved in the community who had missed a similar number of school days. While this boy came from a wealthy, conservative family connected to the military, the girl in question was highly at risk. From my first days teaching at the school, I was warned about her behavior and how hopeless it would be to try to help her. While her grades were lowered, the beloved boy’s grades stayed in place. This brings up to reason #2.

2. It punishes children for their parents and is, in the end, classist. We all agree that there may be dangerous risks associated with excessive absences. Truancy is a red flag for educators – an indicator that something may be wrong at home. In fact, in the case at hand, there was something wrong at home. The girl’s parents were absent themselves much of the time – vacationing in another state with their child left to fend for herself, or stay with friends. Despite her difficulties, this girl managed to achieve decent grades. Now, we were lowering those grades due to behavior that was unrelated to her schoolwork. This brings up point #3.

3. It violates disciplinary principles that the school subscribes to. In this case, my school had adopted the principles of the Responsive Classroom model, based on proven best practices. Responsive Classroom schools make every effort to have consequences relate directly in time and relevance to the behavior we wish to correct. If a student were to be disruptive at lunch, they may be told to have lunch next time in a different location. They would not have a consequence of, say, staying in from recess two weeks hence, or having a special math assignment given to them. Lowering a student’s previous grades violates the logic of this policy. Firstly, it is a consequence unrelated to the objectionable behavior and, secondly, it occurs well after the objectionable behavior. While it is clearly not a consequence that one would call a “best practice,” it is a form a punishment, which is addressed in reason #4.

4. It is a crude attempt to coerce children into conforming. While we may agree that attendance is important, and perhaps critically important for some at-risk children (see reason #2), the alleged objective of school is to give students the academic foundations to thrive, not to assert our control over them. Grades indicate how well a student is learning material or, more precisely, how well a teacher is teaching students. They do not, and should not, be an indicator of how well we like their behavior “off the court” – how well their values line up up with our own. Grades are definitely a sign of the power we hold over students, but to use them as a punishment, or to show disapproval with their non-academic performance, is not an appropriate use of our power. Reason #5 discusses why this is not only inappropriate, but crude.

5. It doesn’t take into account the student’s point of view. There are a myriad of reasons that students stay home from school, not the least of which is to avoid bullying. The punishment of grade lowering does not take into account any of this. The proper response would be to address the causes of excessive absences, not to apply an unrelated, potentially humiliating and seemingly arbitrary punishment that can further alienate a child from school and from adult authority.

As the teacher of the student victim of this policy, I was put in the uncomfortable position of discussing this indefensible punishment with my student, trying to keep from further alienating her from school. It can be difficult to advocate for a student while protecting the integrity of a flawed but over all positive system. I think it’s important to show enough of a united front so as not to undermine the school and its well-intentioned administrators. My approach in these situations was to avoid complaining to the affected student, so as not to further alienate her from school, but to support any effort the student may wish to make to have her voice heard. It’s a fine line between empowering a student and using a student for one’s own moral agenda.

I am writing this blog post as an effort to prompt adults to rethink these anachronistic, punitive grade lowering policies. I certainly never expected to see something like this at my school, a relatively progressive institution run by intelligent, caring educators. Does your school have such a policy written into its disciplinary code? It might be worthwhile to find out. Outdated and potentially harmful policies like this may be lurking in the student handbook that so many parents (and teachers) give just the obligatory skim through in the first week of school.


If you would be so kind as to click this flower, an essay about the alarming practice of removing lunch time from public schools awaits you:




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