Grade Litigation

Grade Litigation

by Dr. Bonnie Snyder

Grades have always been a relative matter. Students in every school grumble when they feel like they got stuck in the “tough” class, and every teacher in America has probably been approached by a disgruntled student demanding to know, “Why did you give me that grade?” (For the uninitiated, the pat response is: “I didn’t give you your grade. You earned it.”)

Here’s a novel approach for a student unhappy with his report card: sue. That’s right, a high school student in New York state is suing his school district over a C+ in Chemistry. The student contends he deserved an A, and the suit claims that his awarded grade caused him severe physical and emotional suffering, along with decreased college admission chances, scholarship hopes, and even future employment opportunities.

Wow. One average grade in one class did all that? I don’t want to pick on this kid too much, because no one knows exactly what went on in this classroom, and I understand how overheated the college admissions process has become. From a teenager’s viewpoint, it sometimes seems like the stakes are life and death itself.

I am also well aware how subjective the scholastic grading process can be. Do teachers sometimes play favorites? You betcha. Pets often benefit from the “halo effect,” which occurs when a teacher thinks a favorite student can do no wrong and awards consistently high grades even for average performance.

The opposite is the “devil horns effect,” in which a student is perceived as a problem and his grades come to reflect that dim view, no matter what he does. Teachers are supposed to be trained to be aware of their own prejudices, and not to let them influence the grades they award, but they’re human and imperfect. This is nothing new, which is why grades are also interpreted subjectively.

Grades always reflect some bias or another, and students have swapped stories and advice on how to “win over” difficult teachers for centuries, if not longer. This inherent subjectivity is one of the main reasons behind the popularity of, a site that allows students to report on the grading difficulty of various professors. Many college students obsess over these rankings and build schedules based primarily around the reported “easiness” of their professors.

As educational theorist Alfie Kohn points out, an excessive focus on grades leads to a counterproductive form of extrinsic motivation, in which students are driven more by rewards than by their actual interest in the subject. They don’t care if they learn anything; they just want the grade. This frequently leads to all kinds of conniving shortcuts to get to the reward with minimal effort, including cheating, shallow learning, and ineffective cramming. The satisfaction of learning for its own sake is completely lost.

Rather than worrying so much about this student’s C+, his litigious parents might want to worry more about their son’s Type A reaction to it. It’s easy to sympathize with his initial distress, but maybe the real lesson to be learned here is about rising above setbacks and taking disappointments in stride, rather than seeking redress. This may be more a test of character than of chemistry proficiency.

Have a little faith in college admissions officers, scholarship committees and employers, too. Even at highly selective schools, they are real people and they don’t require students to be perfect grade-achieving automatons who can walk on water. (I say this from experience, having been admitted to an Ivy League school myself with a C in high school Chemistry — not even a C+.) Admissions reps understand that a C+ in one class can be the equivalent of an A in another, and that any number of variables can influence a grade.

Colleges give applicants opportunities to explain any grades that seem inconsistent with the rest of the student’s academic record, and guidance counselors can call to discuss special situations and extenuating circumstances. All is not lost.

There’s an old c’est la vie saying that goes, “You can’t spell Calculus without two ‘Cs’.” If that’s true, then it stands to reason that you also can’t spell Chemistry without one ‘C’. It’s time to lighten up, disgruntled chem student, and rediscover your sense of humor. It’s great to be a high-achieving student, but it’s even greater to develop the ability to roll with the punches rather than resorting to litigation when things don’t happen to go your way.