If you do, you will:

  • never have accurate data
  • never be able to set correct baselines for goal setting
  • never be able to use your data to achieve goals or strategize
  • never be able to fully – or correctly – realize your ability to teach
  • never be able to trend your students accurately
  • and you will never develop usable plans for professional growth and development

In addition, your students will:

  • never know how much (or how little) they learned
  • never know what they are capable of achieving
  • never be able to set accurate goals for themselves
  • never be able to develop strategies for growth and development
  • never be prepared to take on more difficult challenges

I imagine we all heard the following at one time or another.

  • “Nobody fails in my class.”
  • “She’s a ‘90s’ teacher. No one in her class ever receives under a 90.”
  • “Since it’s your first year here, and just so you know, NOBODY ever fails.” (wink, wink.)
  •  “Why would I fail anyone and risk a bad evaluation at the end of the year?”
  • “If anyone is failing in June, I have them make a poster or do something to pass.”


To pass a student who should rightly fail (a test, a quiz, a homework assignment, class, etc…) is the worst thing a teacher can do.

That’s right, passing a failing student is the #1 worst thing a teacher can do. It ranks up there – and may actually eclipse – failing to complete student work the same day it is handed in. Changing grades is the most undermining contribution to a student’s failure, but above all else – it invalidates your data. Putting aside creating and submitting inaccurate school data for the moment, entering a “false grade” will make it virtually impossible to reliably measure any improvement of your skills as a teacher. Your improvement will now be based on unsound and worthless data.

Do we ever really think about this at all? Does anyone ever question how cavalierly a grade can be “upped” or how nonchalantly a peer might say, “Lets’ just give him a 65 and get him out of here.” Don’t we ever think this will come back to haunt us, or is it just viewed as the price of “doing business” in schools today? I think it is both, and just one more reason why we need to look at education as seen trough the “lens” of other professions. If a CEO alters the company books and is discovered, they are tossed out and perhaps even criminally prosecuted. If a doctor makes any changes to a patient’s records, he or she is very likely to lose their license and may be liable to criminal prosecution. No, I am not suggesting we fire every teacher who has ever changed a grade, or to have them criminally prosecuted. Who would teach our students? I am merely pointing out the significance placed on legal and official documents in all other professions, except teaching. Report cards are still considered legal documents, aren’t they? What I am suggesting is that beginning this September, if you are a teacher who has altered one or one hundred grades (we can all see ourselves in that mirror at one time or another in our careers), resolve to never change another grade. This is will do more for your professional development than anything ever could.

We love to say, “We are the ones who are responsible for teaching all other professions.” This is true, so would you want the doctor, who you taught, to “fudge” your electrocardiogram because you were trying so hard to lose weight he didn’t want to discourage you. Or would you want your accountant, who knew you were struggling with money to “alter” your income taxes to make it look like actually made more money because he wanted you to see some kind of improvement? How about your family practitioner lowering your blood pressure medicine so you could feel your new exercise program is finally reaping the rewards you had hoped for?

While in practice, other doctors would brag about their numbers. “I saw 400 patients this week!” “I had 20 new patients on Saturday!” To know the truth, we could just divide their numbers by two. So many doctors “fibbed” about how many patients they treated because many weren’t using their data to increase and grow their practices. When questioned, many of these same doctors didn’t even know what their numbers were!

Your grades are your data. If work within a Professional Learning Community (PLC) and use common quizzes, tests, etc… (which you should be doing anyway) and your grades are lower or higher than your peers, START USING THAT DATA TO YOUR ADVANTAGE! Learn how your teaching skills will never improve by having someone point out your every deficit. YOU are the only person who can develop yourself, and the only way is to have accurate grades and use them to set benchmarks, goals (short and long), analyze every statistic available, and create strategies. Don’t wait around for someone else to tell you how to hold your chalk or write a Do Now. Just remember, don’t change a single grade. If a student is failing, use that data to guide you to different strategies for different outcomes. No one knows you or your students better than you. Yes, observations and coaching has made many teachers feel as though they will fail without outside “divine guidance”, but don’t let that fool you. Use the internet to pick up new techniques, read books, and do your peer intervisitations. There is so much you can do once you know what your “numbers” are. But if those numbers are skewed, you’ll be chasing your tail forever.

It’s not the “lying” about student successes that is the worst of it (though that is certainly not the best), but the FAULTY DATA (student grades) that is just so wrong and counterproductive to professional development and growth. If this practice doesn’t end soon, it will be our death knell. If you think you are being “overly-observed” now, just wait. Why do you think teachers are observed with such frequency? In other words, what would give administrators a reason to think we need to have our “teaching skills” reviewed over and over again? How about this:

Students are passing their classes, but are performing poorly on their standardized tests (Regents, SAT, SHSAT, ACT, NYSESLAT, etc…). Does that make sense to anyone? If student quarterly averages were in synch with standardized tests, would there be as great a need to observe teachers? Maybe, but if you were an administrator, what would you do? It seems only reasonable that you must see for yourself how the students are being taught – to observe the teacher’s “skills.” While using data in this manner to determine the etiology of the problem is undoubtedly the most rudimentary, simplistic and superficial approach possible, but our statistics that demonstrate a “disconnect” between passing year-end averages and poor standardized test grades begs investigation, hence… the observations.

Our conclusions (excuses) when the kids fail standardized tests? Those damn tests ask the wrong questions, are biased, confuse the students, and create such emotional stress that our kids can’t possibly pass them. Did we ever think that by inflating student grades that we are “passing” the student, but at the same time “failing” them in a whole different light? Possibly for the rest of their lives?

And yes, it is lying. We all tell white lies now and then, but none of our “fibs” affect the rest of your life in any meaningful way. But altering a grade so that a student passes when they should not have? That is changing the face of education.

How many of our high school graduates are unprepared for college work? The latest poll for New York City show that less than one-third of high school graduates are “college ready” and a majority now require up to two years of non-credit remedial English and math work. How can this be? They earned grades sufficient to pass their classes didn’t they? We “graduated” them, didn’t we? Colleges accepted them didn’t they? So where did it all go wrong?

We lied about their grades (OK, to make is a little more palatable, we’ll call it “fixing.”) We “fixed” their grades, just like old-time boxing promoters who, to make certain of the outcome, would make sure a fight was fixed.

Incidentally, this article just came today Why did NYC let me graduate high school?

So how to fix this problem is schools?

Short term – Instead of observing teachers, it would be more beneficial for a principal or AP to sit with a teacher after their students take a quiz, test, mid-term, or semester final and review the papers together. A second set of “non-judgmental” eyes can make a big difference. Look for quality of questions, grading policies, attention to content, etc…

Long term – First, keep accurate records: grades, parent communications, behavior issues, etc… Second, work with a teacher practice management consultant who will provide solutions, using statistical analysis of existing teacher and student data to increase your performance while developing plans for increasing student improvement. We can objectively diagnose problems to help set goals, prioritize work, manage time and help guide your professional decisions. You do the rest!

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  1. Rebecca Pennington says:

    It is ironic that I will have to click a box that says, “I am not a robot.” School and learning is not a business and the “ROI” isn’t as simple as “objectively” using data to determine goals, performance, etc. Students and teachers are humans who develop and learn in complex ways and on different timelines. In addition, many colleges and schools don’t allow teachers to fail students. They have a variety of policies (such as not giving a 0) to prevent teachers from failing students. So, I will check that I am not a robot, but this article is calling for a reductionist view of humans and learning that treats them as if they were robots or widgets on an assembly line.

  2. Lorie Ginader says:

    Responding to another comment made by a responder, about their life experience. “Your job is to pass them through as quickly as possible because that’s how we get paid. So when it comes teachers’ pay raises, you remember that!”
    This is the problem we face today and solutions should be discussed in detail. If our nation’s educational communities would combine forces and submit a proposal for corrections in policy I believe the U.S. Department of Education would listen. The nation as a whole “Needs” working solutions to rebuild the cultural standards that have been depleted by years of neglect and compromise.
    Anyone willing to begin a movement to unite for this cause. I am in and willing to do all can from my vantage point!!!

  3. Marsha says:

    In my class, I had a student who should not have been in 3rd grade, let alone move on to 4th. I was not able to keep him back because we could not reach his parents. No response to phone calls, notes home, even a home visit by the principal. No signature and the child moved on. It’s not always our choice.

    • drcubbin says:

      I have had colleagues who have experienced this as well, Marsha. While in practice, we would sometimes receive an over-payment from an insurance company. We would send it back. They would re-send it. We would tear it up. There comes a time when you let it go. In schools, I have also had teachers who complain that their principals have changed grades. They should just need to let it go. So long as they have documented and changes in the grade, they have done what is required. You are correct. It is not always our choice – so long as we document everything.

  4. Timothy L. Raymond says:

    Interesting article, but the lack of research based support leaves it to an educational OpEd piece rather than a professional article. The citation by the New York Post article was a poor piece of news journalism. Note the only person cited throughout the article was the child who “didn’t deserve” her diploma. With only one source (the student), and no collaboration to support her statements, and without comment from the teachers and the school leaves, the article is neither credible or worth citation.
    The premise of false records gives a limited perspective that calls for the reader to accept a schools mission is to prepare students for college entrance exams. No one can condone moving unprepared students forward, but at the same time where is the teacher and schools role in ensuring students master the knowledge and skills necessary for post-secondary achievement?

    • drcubbin says:

      Timothy, I am much more concerned with the content of this student’s story rather than the journalistic merits of the NY Post (though I know many teachers will hang garlic and crosses outside their homes to prevent its delivery.) I was even more intrigued in the girl’s version (as I have witnessed this dozens of times first hand in the NYC DOE) after reading the next day’s follow-up quoting both the girl’s teacher and her guidance counselor explaining why she was passed. That was even better than the first article.

      • Timothy L. Raymond says:

        Thank you for the reply, but I think a review of the article shows the Post provided inadequate, if not poor commentary/insight from guidance counselors, teachers, or administrators. This was a singular dialog that represented only the child’s perspective. I couldn’t agree with you more the importance of her viewpoint and thoughts. But without a journalistic search that corroborates her statements the story deserves critical reception. Without a reply by the district and her teachers, counselors, and administrators, we’re left to take her perspective to represent the entirety of the situation. In the opening statement the author of the article states, “Teachers say Melissa is just one of a number of students magically given credits for classes they failed in an effort by administrators to raise Bryant’s graduation rate.” That does not equate to investigative journalism. We deserve to hear those teachers names, and be provided with an administrative response. This is more about accurate journalism rather than the topic presented.
        The discussion deserves a greater insight, and it’s use to justify the authors viewpoint is worthy of critique. Our current practices in grading (in my opinion) is antiquated and demands greater attention by the educational community and it’s institutions. I do appreciate your thoughts and look forward to hearing your response.

        • drcubbin says:

          Sorry for a late response Timothy (2 years is definitely considered late). I have re-read your response and I can only come to the conclusion that you are in an administrative position, and in a bit of denial as well. Maybe your school is wonderful, all the students hand in their homework and show up on time. In the vast majority of urban school (not all, but the vast majority) students are socially promoted every day. In NY City, this is especially troublesome. As I said to Marsha, I have had colleagues whose principals change grades routinely. Have you not read horror stories (again here in NY, but I am sure they occur everywhere) about invalid testing due to “coaching” on the part of teachers an/or administrators? This is only what is making the news. You say that “without a journalistic search that corroborates her statements the story” we are at the mercy of her words. She gave the school (Bryant) and the name of her guidance counselor. Also, at the bottom of that article is another article reporting on their summer school cheating escapades. What more do you need? If these “stories” contained any “misinformation” it certainly would have been all over every news report in NYC. There was nothing. I understand that administrators are under great pressure to graduate the students in their schools, but there are ways of doing this correctly (as pointed out in my “blog” or “article” or “commentary” or whatever you want to call it), but they are just not open to change. And that is all too often their downfall.

  5. i’ll just say that ” what if a student fails?” the worst will be the name of failure for a student and if he/she is someone, then they will be no one.

  6. Luis Galeano says:

    I still do not understand what is on failing. Are we all so scared to face the facts we need any improvement? Do grades actually show how efficient a person would be to strive in life?.
    If it is a fact we are on the pursuit to get high standars in order to get a kind of prestige in our society, but it is also important that those results either positive or negative would reflect the real progress our students have and give us a sign on what to do to be more accurate on what we are doing that actually goes far beyond to get better human beings.
    What I am really concerned about all these matters is the function of grades as a compass to spin on what to do for better and not a simple sample on you as a pro that problaby and unfortunately get in a given moment a negative mark to carry with the whole responsabilities rather than a teamwork burden.

  7. Pingback: Reflections on the Knowledge Society » Passing failing students

  8. Nahida El Assi says:

    Thank you Dr. Cubbin for sharing the article. I find the content interesting because I am getting to know about how educational systems work in different regions of this world. I liked how you addressed a number of important issues pertaining to the topic.

    Although I am a researcher, I could not but take your opinions and observations as common knowledge of an educated person who has got long experience in the field.

    Therefore, whether accurate or not, I believe the analogies are worth considering to understand how critical the situation would be, if we were to take “passing failing students” lightly.

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