Monday, May 18, 2015

Should I change a student's grade? (It's not what you think.)

My department suffered the presences of an incompetent faculty member who screwed up the grades for about 100 students.  Just miscalculated their percentages in the spreadsheet.  The moron in question retired after this past semester and was too busy planning his golfing trips to notice that his students were earning 150% on the final exam.  I've spoken with him and he explained what happened.  There are no excuses other than incompetence.  But that's not what I want to talk about.

So far, we have not found any students who received a lower grade than they earned.  Let's assume all students got some bonus, which in the case of 100 students, resulted in a higher letter grade, sometimes two letter grades higher, than they deserved.  My question is, what the fuck do we do with these students who got an undeserved higher grade.  I have a great deal of sympathy for these students and I want to do what is right for them.  They are innocent in the fiasco.  The faculty must fix this.  What does that require?

More info after the jumpity-jump.

On one hand, we would not be punishing them by correcting their grades to their lower, more accurate values.  We would be applying the grading scale that's in the syllabus.  The students would be a bit upset but they'd probably get over it and we would know that their grades are calculated in the same way as students in previous semesters.  That seems fair.

What about student(s) whose grade turns into an F?  By leading him to believe that he passed, that student didn't make plans to retake the class over the summer.  We may have screwed that student by preventing them from taking the class over the summer.  This isn't a common problem, but at least a few students did fail, based on the recalculated grades.  I don't know if any students in the class graduated, but what if any of them failed?

We could decide that these students got lucky and we leave the grades as they are.  This is the least amount of work for us, the faculty who remain to clean up this mess.  We could even keep it a secret from the administration.  The instructor is never teaching again, anywhere ever.  Who needs this embarrassment?  The students certainly won't complain.


The bonus was not evenly applied to all students.  Through a series of calculation errors, the instructor gave some students an extra 1 or 2%.  Other students received 20% bonuses.  In no way did the students deserve or earn any of these curves.  Fairness would suggest that any benefit be evening applied to all students.  That's not the case here.

This was an introductory class.  Students may think they know enough to earn a B but in reality they have D+ knowledge. It would be a disservice to those students to give them an unrealistic evaluation of their abilities. 

I am at a loss and would appreciate your guidance.  I need some ideas for how to deal with competing views of fairness in terms of individual students, the class as a whole and the integrity of the course.  How would you handle this?


  1. Sorry, Ben, but a screwup that gives a student a higher grade than deserved must stand. At least the incompetent jackass that caused it won't be able to do it again. It'll be up to your colleagues teaching the more advanced courses to weed out the ones who squeaked through.

    1. P.S. I tried to correct an error like this once, and I thought I was going to be taken to court for it. It's been a real incentive to get it right the first time, ever since.

  2. I suspect Frod is correct, and am tempted to bow to his actual experience in this case. Realistically, I think this is the sort of thing where you have to consult with those higher up the administrative chain (it sounds like it's already being dealt with at the tenured-faculty, and probably chair, level, so we're probably talking dean or provost plus somebody with legal expertise), and will almost certainly end up doing what they say, whether or not you think it's the right thing. But it doesn't hurt to go into such a situation with some idea of what you think *should* happen.

    Ideally, I'd say that you do, in fact, change all the grades to what they actually should be, and send an explanatory letter (probably an email, actually, but this strikes me as a situation that ideally calls for a real, old-fashioned, snail-mail letter, on letterhead, probably also sent by PDF attachment just before the grade change actually occurs, and of course vetted by all necessary higher-ups). The letter should offer some form of compensation/mitigation for any real harm that occurred (which is a bit hard to define/describe, but you made a good start above; the main possible harm seems to be that a student might be misinformed about hir knowledge of the field/preparation for later classes or related activities), and, to avoid lawsuits, will probably also need to offer some mitigation/compensation for harms students think occurred/will occur (whether or not they really make sense; I'm guessing these anticipated/imagined harms will mostly take the form of decreased chances for grad admission/employment).

    Students who received a grade below the level the department judges necessary to move on successfully to the next class (or, realistically, given the howls that will probably arise about fairness, less than an A) should receive some sort of help in catching up: ideally, the chance to retake the class without charge (perhaps even in a new online section created for the purpose this summer); at the very least some sort of tutoring support if they enroll in the next class sometime soon (say, either fall or spring next year). The chance to retake the class would also take care of the "harm" of a lower GPA (which is questionable, since the student actually earned the grade you'd be recording, but you're not going to win this argument, so you might as well concede it, and design the remedy in a way that gives the student a chance to get some actual education out of the experience). So I suspect that, realistically, that's what you need to offer if you offer anything. It's an expensive option, but probably less expenseive (you might point out) than dealing with even one lawsuit, and it doesn't create new fairness complaints (as offering extra tutoring to some students but not others might).

    I'll be interested to hear how this comes out. Please update us.

    1. I agree with Cassandra. It doesn't seem right not to notify the students, even though they might prefer, if you asked them, to get a freebie higher grade than they earned. Suppose some of them were on the fence about whether to continue in college, and have taken out another year of loans partly on the premise that they did OK in that class? They could be making decisions of variously life-changing impact based on that faulty info, and deserve to know the truth.
      For real, though, what a cluster* for you to have to deal with.

    2. I like the idea of offering an online summer course with tuition waived! That would cover those students who, thinking they passed, already arranged to be elsewhere during the summer. And it wouldn't incur unexpected tuition costs for anyone.

    3. One wrinkle: Ben is a chemistry prof, I believe. If this is a class with a lab component, coming up with a fully equivalent online version of the class might be tough (I have a friend who did an online chemistry class as part of a pre-med refresher course, and received a lab kit in the mail, enabling hir to do experiments in hir own kitchen, but one can imagine downsides to that approach).

      But even then, some sort of refresher course for the material covered on the final exam, followed by an opportunity to re-take the exam and a grade change based on the new exam grade, might work.

  3. Normally this would be something that would just have to be ignored and endured, the way we ignore/endure that colleague who never assigns a grade below a B. The thing that's disturbing about this situation, though, is that the bonus wasn't applied equally to all students.. Students do talk, and they will figure it out. Those whose grade bonuses were merely in the single digits will conclude that they were victims of unlawful discrimination. Inaction, under these circumstances, could be actionable.

    The right thing to do would be to record the correct grades (it sounds like someone's already done the work of figuring them out) and have an advisor arrange (or at least offer) to place the failing students into the summer course, or reserve places for them for the fall.

    The practical course of action, though, would be to have your department chair contact your university's legal counsel and do whatever they tell you. Which will probably be to apply the 20% bonus to everyone, and brace for a wave of failures next year.

  4. Sorry, but I'm going to disagree with those who say "can't be changed", because I've been there myself, and it certainly can be changed. Mind you, I'm from a unit that has always backed me up on everything I've done with grades, with none of this Chair-level or Dean-level kowtowing to student complaints that undermine the instructor. I changed the grades back to what they should have been, and brought out my "you keep using that word, but I don't think it means what you think it means" argument in full force whenever a student complained how it was unfair. I put the onus fully on the student to explain how getting a mark that one didn't actually receive was "unfair". I would reply that, due to an error, this was "unfortunate", and "inconvenient", but NOT "unfair."; what would be unfair would be to let the incorrect grades remain as-is.

    HOWEVER, my mistake was very minor (less than 2% change at most), so only had a max effect of changing one letter grade, not up to two, and luckily did not change anyone's grade from a pass to a fail.

    From a "realpolitik" perspective, I'd quietly leave the pass students as-is, rather than change it to a fail, because the one real clusterfuck from all this is that they'd have missed their window to enrol in summer courses. If someone got a just-passing grade in such a course, I highly doubt this would be rewarding students who go on to take someone else's place in grad/med/biz/law school.

  5. We corrected grades in my department in a similar situation. Many students ended up needing to take the class again. A special section was set up over the summer just for them (with no discount).

    The end result of the ensuing firestorm was that certain students who complained and threatened legal action got their grades changed back eventually (by the Dean). I work in a community college, where communication between students is far less prolific. That, perhaps, accounts for the fact that the less litigious students never showed up crying foul.

    I am not saying this was fair; I am simply relaying what happened.

  6. As far as I know, none of the schools that have accidentally sent out acceptance letters to applicants who were actually rejected decided to admit the applicants. There is something that can be done: "Mea culpa! We screwed up. We're sorry. But you're not going to be enrolled here in the fall. Thanks for understanding. See ya."

    Extrapolate from there.

  7. I'd look in the student handbook/catalog for language that states that grade miscalculations must always be resolved in the students' favor. Absent such, the reasonable person should expect that grades recorded will be grades earned.

    This isn't that situation on "The Price is Right" where the host (I seem to remember it was Bob Barker) called it a win, but the big wheel slipped another notch during the celebration and he tried to retract, but the lawsuit retracted the retraction. This is more like "Jeopardy" where they do make corrections sometimes a few minutes later, not always in the contentestant's favor (at least I seem to remember seeing that happen).