On Campus

When is less-than-50, 50?

A 38-per-cent grade isn't special

This week, a student (I’ll call her Melissa) wrote to me, asking if I could raise her grade to a 50 so that she could pass the course she had taken with me over the summer. She made the usual excuses: I’m not an expert on this stuff, I tried hard, and I really need to pass this course. Of course, all of these things are irrelevant. You get a grade based on the quality of work that you did, and nothing else. I told Melissa so.

But then, in her third message, she wrote something that I could hardly believe. “Please,” she said, “I only need that additional 12 per cent.” That’s right. Melissa had received a grade of 38, and wanted me to bump it up to 50. Not 48, mind you, 38.

Now, most professors have sympathy for students who come in just under the line, and some are outspoken about those who won’t raise a 48 or a 49 to a 50. When I first started teaching I was encouraged to raise any grade above 45 to a 50, and any 50 to 51. The latter was on the grounds that someone might think that exact 50 was a gimme. Another legend in my school tells of an old-time professor who was once presented with a gold-painted screw on a block of wood, as a sarcastic trophy for screwing so many students out of credit by not raising their grades.

Now, I have no problem with someone who thinks that the student who got 49 ought to pass, and raises the grade accordingly. But why are we considered ogres if we don’t? When I was 15, I didn’t go into the Department of Transportation and ask to take my drivers’ test on the grounds that I was 15, and 15 was almost 16. Everyone knows that where the drinking age is 19, you can’t expect to get served unless you are actually 19 (or you make them think you are). Not a week away. Not turning 19 the day after tomorrow. Nineteen. So if we say that a pass is 50, why is failing at 48 such a problem?

One answer that has been proposed to me is that one’s age is an objective matter. You can document to the day just how old you are. But grading is often a series of judgement calls, and so, if it’s close, why not give the student the benefit of the doubt?

It’s an interesting point, but I don’t accept this answer for at least three reasons. For one thing, I (and I expect most professors) already give students the benefit of the doubt as we go along. If I ever find myself wondering if I should give the test answer the point or not, I always give it. If I think an essay is a borderline pass, I give it a passing grade. So if Melissa gets all those benefits of the doubts, and still can’t muster a 50 (or anywhere close), I don’t think she deserves further leeway.

Second, in other areas of life, we frequently expect judgement calls to stand. An umpire doesn’t call you safe because in his judgement your foot was nearly on the bag. The jury can’t find you guilty-but-maybe-a-little-innocent-so-innocent. Why can’t a well-credentialed expert in a scholarly field say close but no cigar?

Finally, in every university course that I have taken, given, or known much about, a grade in the low 50s has meant that you did not learn very well or achieve very much. Fifty-something is already a break. It means you don’t really know what’s going on, but your meager effort was not so abysmal as to merit an actual failure. In some programs, even if you pass all your courses with a 50, you still don’t graduate, because they know you have just barely scraped by. My point is this: if students can’t not convincingly meet even this very low standard, they don’t deserve a free pass.

Certainly, there may be cases where compassion and special circumstances merit a little bump. I sometimes bump a 49 if the student had some missteps early on and then ended up doing much better later and would have passed easily if the course had gone on a little longer. But such a modification is a gift, and it is rude to complain about not getting it as a matter of course. We call them special circumstances for a reason. Besides, if 48 or 49 must be raised to 50, then why not 45? Or 40?

And the next thing you know, students will be complaining that they didn’t pass because they got a 38.

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