What Does It Mean For A Student To Deserve Promotion?

Jose Vilson Education, Jose

Anyone who’s read this blog for a while knows that the New York Post isn’t a friend of this program, but can we talk about this interview for a second?

Melissa Mejia, a former student of Bryant High School in Queens, NY, wrote an impassioned essay on why she was allowed to pass a class she didn’t deserve to pass. She readily admits that she rarely showed up to her government class and didn’t turn in assignments she promised to. The teacher in question, Andrea McHale, was given a chance to respond to the student’s claims and did so in a way that belies the nature of the work we do in the classroom, and the ways our hands are tied on a case-by-case basis.

Ignoring the Post’s penchant for turning the ordinary into outrageous, this story reminds me just how many factors come into play when we teach students and, in this case, who deserves to be promoted.

As a middle school math teacher, I’ve probably promoted a few students earlier in my career who didn’t deserve it. Later in my career, I’ve probably marked a large set of my students with a failing grade for various reasons. [My standards is high!] Deserving is such an interesting word too. Educators see lots of kids who don’t “deserve” to graduate, but may have different criteria for what it means to deserve it. Did the students do all of the teacher’s assignments? Were they on time to class? Did they participate in class? Do they have behavioral issues in and out of class? How much weight do we place on teacher-made tests when the final test shows that they’re competent in the material we educators taught?

Sure enough, some of these elements are also affected by our own perceptions, too.

Is the student a boy, girl, or non-binary? Do they have special needs? Are they of color? Are they loud or quiet? Neatly kept or unkempt? Do these characteristics help or hinder their motivation to get our work in? Is it us as educators? Are we content with passing a student who isn’t thriving in our school and taking a chance on the next school working out better? Do we trust the student to mature enough to get it together by the next year? Do we trust too much?

Do any of these questions affect the enactment of the policies handed down to us as educators? Do the students in our care have paperwork which allows the student to get promoted regardless of what they get? Do we have students who did next to nothing yet a 55 was the lowest we could give them? Do we all buy into why that’s the base? Do we have an unspoken cap on how many students we can give a failing grade to placed on by our administrators?

Should we stop giving grades altogether?

I don’t have all the answers (obviously), but rather than exacerbate the meaning of this story altogether, we ought to forge a better path towards what it means to master, and to what end. Even if an educator saw irregularities, education’s whistleblower culture is, at best, vindictive. I’ve been miffed on plenty of occasions when a student who I know didn’t do work through the semester still got to pass, but the same criteria that let that student pass gave another student the breathing room to excel in the same class. Even before No Child Left Behind, we’ve had the issue of students passing who shouldn’t have.

Conversely, we’ve had the issue of students who deserved to get promoted, but didn’t because their test scores were too low or the teacher just didn’t like the student. We need to develop a better set of criteria for student promotion, and we need consensus on what learning looks like. More than just promotion in grades, we also need to promote better learning throughout our systems. Until then, we’ll just have to be satisfied with the imperfections of our promotional criteria, and hope we can make good choices in our contexts.

So complicated, right?

photo c/o