What’s the harm in failing to fail?

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by Kelly Beischel PhD, RN, CNE

My client, Susan, was steaming.

And rightly so.

Susan’s department director went over her head and told Susan’s failing students that she (the director) would change their course grade if they passed the HESI, a standardized test.

True story.

I’ve heard this story, or a version of it, more times than I can count.

And I too am furious.

How have we come to this in higher education?

As a society, we have evolved into “trophyizing” (yes, I made that word up) children for simply trying, for showing up, for giving their all. And sometimes they don’t even have to show up or give their all yet still receive a trophy.  

Just as distributing trophies to undeserving children, the practice of passing students when their grades suggest otherwise serves no one.

It’s unethical in fact.

Why?

Because it teaches nothing. Except perhaps, “If you whine loudly enough, you can get your way.”

The official term for this is “failing to fail.”

While Susan’s story may be infuriating, administrators are not alone in the practice of failing to fail.

Faculty have cited knowing the student’s name, giving the benefit of the doubt, fearing the student would be held back or removed from their course of study as well as, lack of institutional support as being influential in their decision to pass failing students. 

It’s shocking. I know.

But even more shocking, these same faculty express disgust that students file into their classrooms expecting A’s.

Yes, perhaps students do act entitled to grades they haven’t earned. I get it. The pressure to inflate grades comes from all sides – students, parents, administrators, and even colleagues.

But aren’t we perpetuating the very behavior we abhor every time we inflate grades or pass students when they haven’t earned it?

If we inflate grades how are we any different than the coaches and parents who we claim have created the “trophy syndrome”? 

How are we any different than those who created entitlement mindsets?

What is the most egregious practice of inflating grades? Failing to fail.

It is time to break the cycle.

The fallout is too great.

What are the ramifications of failing to fail?

It can be a safety risk when we fail to fail. Imagine what would happen if a structural engineer squeaked by because her teacher didn’t give her the F that she earned.

How safe would you feel driving on the bridge she signed off on?

It might take more than the act of lifting up your feet to cross the bridge safely.

Or how about nursing or medical students who are permitted to pass despite not having learned how to administer safe care?

Failing to fail leads to ethical distress in faculty.  While faculty worry and express feelings of guilt and self-doubt when a student fails, faculty know they are not serving the public nor the student well when they fail to fail. This practice can erode their value system. When an administrator encourages faculty (subtly or overtly) to pass students, worry ensues about what will happen if they don’t concede. Will it affect their raise? Will it be detrimental to earning promotion and tenure?

Furthermore, is it ethical to allow students to pass knowing that they will be unable to pass the licensure or certification exam at the end of four years of study and be a hundred thousand dollars in debt?

Practicing grade inflation or failing to fail jeopardizes student trust. Lowering the scholastic bar or boundaries of achievement like it’s a limbo contest defeats student morale. And make no mistake about it – grades ARE boundaries.

Imagine having worked hard for 15 weeks, putting the time in required of earning a good grade. Only to have the teacher lower the bar to accommodate those who haven’t reached it. Students have every right not to trust faculty who commit this behavior.

Just as faculty worry about the ramifications to their profession when they pass students who haven’t earned it, students do too. Students know that it’s ultimately a blight on their intended profession when they see students passing who haven’t earned it. 

What perpetuates this behavior?

It can go two ways. Top down or bottom up.

Top down

Administrators are concerned with retention rates and tuition. When students fail a course in their major, they may leave the university. And yes, their tuition dollars go with them, affecting the bottom line. Many administrators have also adopted the consumer is always right mentality.

For this reason, administrators may strongly encourage directors or chairs to press upon faculty the import of passing students. And similar to the authority gradient that occurs between administrator and chair, faculty often yield to the chair out of fear for their position.

Sadly, some faculty also concede to changing a grade from a place of resignation. A place of giving up.

I personally know faculty who after being confronted by administration to change, did so. And then from that moment forward, refused to spend time grading papers. When they received papers from their students they simply tossed the papers in their trunk and gave all the students A’s. They dubbed this practice as “giving trunk grades”.

Bottom Up

Faculty are dependent on positive student course evaluations for retention, promotion, and tenure. Unfortunately, this can lead faculty to appease students.

I’ve coached many faculty who are afraid to hold the line. They’ve expressed concerns that their student course evaluations will be negatively affected if they’re considered “demanding” in the classroom. And they’re afraid these negative evaluations will affect their raise, if not their position.

When in fact, the opposite is true.

Students respect teachers who hold the line. They respect the teacher who believes that they are up for the challenge.

But why wait to take action until students have failed?

Everyone would be better served if administrators supported their faculty. Administrators, rather than asking faculty (subtly or overtly) to pass a failing student, support faculty in graduating students who have earned the right to the grade they earned.

Have their back.

And provide faculty with professional development in how to use best evidence to guide their teaching, write valid and reliable tests, and coach students in how to meet the standards.

Faculty, it is time to stand up against trophyizing students. Demand excellence from your administration, students, and yourself. Using the evidence of best practices to guide your methods of teaching and evaluating will give you the confidence you need to stand in your power when students begin begging for grades they haven’t earned.

I hear you loud and clear when you say, “But, Kelly, my university won’t back me. I may not be promoted or tenured.”

Then I will ask you, “Is working in an institution that expects less of, both, its students and faculty worth the degradation of your values?”

It’s your call.

As for Susan, she chose excellence over all else.

When her director interfered and undermined her, the university lost a great teacher.

 

You have thoughts about this. Let me know them in the comments below. 

 

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