Reducing Grades as a Means of Imposing Discipline

  • by: Joel B. Wolowelsky

This article originally appeared in Ten Da’at, vol. 4, 1, 1989. Appears here with permission.
Educators universally recognize the professional obligation to maintain the integrity of a student’s transcript; however, ensuring that a student’s grades are neither higher nor lower than they legitimately should be is a halakhic obligation as well.
In his responsum declaring the absolute prohibition of in any way aiding in the theft of the final comprehensive New York State Regents examinations, Rav Moshe Feinstein, z”l, makes an important point in addition to the general prohibition of theft. 1 He notes that employers often rely on a student’s transcript in deciding whether to employ a particular person. When a grade is higher than what it should be, the employer is robbed of the opportunity to properly evaluate the prospective employee.
Of course, the “flip side” is equally compelling. If a student’s grade is lower what it should be, the student is robbed of thee opportunity to be properly rated for the job, a college placement, a scholarship, or anything else for which evaluation of a student’s transcript is required.
In New York State it is public policy that “a grade is intended to be an educational evaluation, that is an estimation of a student’s level of achievement within a particular subject area” 2. Of course, “levels of achievement” includes many things, such as performance on examinations, homework assignments, projects, compositions, laboratory exercises, and so on. Diverse disciplines, and different teachers, apply varying specific weights to each of these components, and it would be impossible to try to establish a uniform breakdown of the grade for each and every subject. But a constant requirement that applies to all disciplines and all teachers is that one “may not subvert the purpose of grading [i.e., educational evaluation] by arbitrarily reducing a student’s grade as a means of imposing discipline” 3.
On the simplest interpretation, this would rule out lowering a student’s grade for some behavior outside of the classroom. For example, a school in New York State had a policy of reducing a student’s grade to a maximum of 75 if he or she had been suspended for disciplinary reasons. When a student’s grade was thereby lowered as a result of an incident in the lavatory and his subsequent suspension, the Commissioner invalidated the policy. He ruled that “there appears to be no reasonable relationship between the student’s misconduct in the lavatory and the level of achievement attained by such student in his courses that marking period” 4.
This general public policy also applies to discipline for actions within the classroom. For example, a school had a policy of reducing a student’s report card grader one point for every unexcused lateness (after the second occurrence) within a given quarter. Understandably, no penalty would be imposed for an excused lateness (as, for example, if a principal asked to speak to the student and kept him or her until after the starting bell). The Commissioner invalidated this policy because it “is automatic in its application and premised solely on whether a student’s absence is excused or not. Such a policy is logically inconsistent, in that students who have ‘excused’ absences have equally missed ‘necessary’ work” 5. The points were being deducted from the student’s grade as a disciplinary sanction and not as a measure of his or her academic achievement. Such a marking system violated the professional standards for grading.
This logic likewise invalidates a policy which lowers a student’s grade for cutting. Classroom work is an important component of a student’s academic achievement. But inasmuch as points are not automatically deducted when a student is sick, for example, the grade reduction for cutting is a disciplinary sanction unrelated to academic achievement. Indeed, the Commissioner also reversed the policy or a school which imposed a grade reduction as a sanction for cutting. A student’s grade had been reduced by 5% for each day of unexcused absence. But, noted the Commissioner, students who did attend classes on the day that that student cut did not have 5% of their grades in those classes determined by that particular day’s classroom performance. “Reducing petitioner’s grade by 5% for conduct unrelated to academic performance clearly constituted arbitrary and unreasonable action,” he ruled 6.
These rulings concern deducting points, but the policy addresses the over-all integrity of the grade, and “a corollary would be that academic awards shall not be given for non-academic achievement” 7. A student who gets “bonus points” for good attendance, fine behavior, participation in a particular after-school club, and so on, is not being rewarded for academic achievement. Thus those who evaluate the student’s transcript are not seeing a mark that measures what it should, and other students in the class who have attained the same level of academic achievement but who have not earned the “bonus points” have been denied a grade that reflects their actual standing.
It is true that as a private school, a yeshivah might not—from a technical legal standpoint—be subject to every ruling of its state’s Commissioner of Education (and certainly not to the rulings of another state’s official). Rut these rulings are not simply formal orders to schools under a Commissioner’s jurisdiction. They are expressions of public policy, a definition of what a grade is in our society and what a person who evaluates a student’s transcript may logically assume when examining tile document.
The fact that a particular policy might in actuality be effective as a method of maintaining discipline is entirely irrelevant to the question of whether it is ethically acceptable. There are many disciplinary methods which would be quite effective if allowed to be used but which are rejected because they violate our standards of propriety, Lowering a student’s grade for cutting or lateness might actually get the student to class on time every day. But to reduce grades as a means of imposing discipline in our society, to rob the student of a true grade, a yeshivah which allows a student’s grade to be higher or lower than it should be as an evaluation of actual academic achievement should be re-evaluating its policy to bring it into conformity with halakhic and professional standards.
1Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, Iggerot Moshe, Hoshen Mishpoat, part four, responsum 30, page 244.
2Matter of MacWhinne, 20 New York State Education Department Reports 147 (1980).
3 Matter of Coleman, 23 NY Ed Dept Rcp 126 (1983).
4Matter of MacWhinne, 20 New York State Education Department Reports 147 (1980).
5Matter of Gibbons, 22 NY Ed Dep Rep 136 (1982).
6Matter of Caskey, 20 NY Ed Dept Rep 138 (1981). Note also Matter of Shamoon, 22 NY Ed Dept Re 430 (1983).
7Letter from the Supervisor, Bureau of School Registration. New York State Education Department, December 29, 1988.