The Sucker Punch: Honor Roll Grades for Poor Performance

“The acid test is to stop looking at official documents and start looking at real student work.” 

The world of education owes a huge debt to The New Teacher Project – TNTP. Their most recent work focuses on the critical difference between our aspirations – students who wish to go to college and succeed in the world – and the reality – students who receive honor-roll grades, take on debt for college, enroll in college, and then fail because they were inadequately prepared for the rigors of university studies. 

The TNTP report is deeply troubling, showing that although the vast majority – more than 90 percent – of students aspire to college, and most of them receive A and B grades, a tiny minority, fewer than 10 percent, receive the grade-level instruction necessary to prepare them for the rigors of college. Schools that are dominated by students from low-income families and ethnic minorities are least likely to provide the high expectations and grade-level instruction that are necessary for students to succeed. 

There are some practical solutions to this dilemma.

First, look at real student work. Don’t settle for the official documents about standards and grade-level expectations. Look at work that bears the mark of C or B – marks that students and parents would think are acceptable. Ask, “Is this the quality that demonstrates readiness for the next level of learning?” Most C-level work I see is not close to this standard. 

Second, make teacher-created responses. Many people resist this. “How can you ask a college-educated professional to do a third-grade assignment?” Please be patient and give it a try. Because if the college-educated professional gets it wrong, that is probably pretty good evidence that the directions were unclear or the scoring guide was ambiguous. Students don’t read rubrics. They look at models, and we owe it to them to create models of successful performance.

Third, review student work across grade levels. Our inclination would be that if we considered work from grades 2, 4, 6, and 8, the complexity and rigor would be evident. Sometimes that is true, but often it is not. Please do not operate on assumptions. The acid test is to stop looking at the official documents and start looking at real student work. I have found fourth-grade work – especially worked marked “C” -- that is below what is accepted in second grade, and eighth-grade work marked “C” that is below what is otherwise accepted in grades 4 and 6. The bottom line is that the language of the standards does not matter if we do not agree on how real student work is related to those standards. 

Fourth, look at your honor roll. Do you have students with honor-roll grades who are not ready for the next level of instruction? Almost every school does, and that is because we reward compliance more than competence. 

You can read the original TNTP report here:

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