Erin knew something was weird when her parents greeted her after school by saying, “Nice report card, Honey! We knew you could do it!” She put her backpack down and picked up the report card from the kitchen table. English: A, Math: A-, World Civilization: B+, Chemistry: A-. Erin looked again. And again.
The chemistry grade was wrong, there was no doubt about it. Erin thought back to last week. She went into the final exam with an A-, but she received a C- on the exam. She had been devastated. So much so, that she didn’t say anything about it to her parents.
So, what happened? Her teacher must have either miscalculated Erin’s grade, or hit a wrong key when he was entering the grades. The science final was worth forty percent of her grade. That would make her chemistry grade a B-. The real question was, “Now what?”
For better or worse, today was the first day of semester break. Erin had a week before she would see her teacher again. She had a week to figure out if she should tell the teacher about the mistake. She called her best friend.
“Why should you say anything?” was her friend’s response. “It was the teacher’s mistake, not yours. That grade could decide whether or not you get into the college you want.” Erin could see her friend’s point of view but something didn’t sit well with her. Could she live with the idea of always knowing that grade was a lie? The truth was, maybe she could.
The week crawled by. By Sunday, Erin was feeling a bit more clarity around her decision, but she was still uneasy. That night at dinner she told her parents about her dilemma. She told them how she knew the “right thing” to do was probably to tell her teacher about the mistake, but she also knew how competitive grades and college applications were at her school. Even despite the lower grade in chemistry, she worked hard as a student and deserved to go to a good school as much as anyone, and that grade would affect her overall GPA. At the same time, how would it feel to finish off the year seeing that teacher in the hallway every day, or how will it feel next year looking back on this choice?
What should Erin do?
Notes for the Facilitator
This is a case that almost everyone can relate to. We have either known someone who has experienced a similar situation, experienced one ourselves, or imagined what we might do if something like this were to happen to us. It tugs at our ethics in some conflicting ways. One decision might make Erin feel she has done the right thing in the moment by telling the teacher about the mistake, but what about her chances to really prove herself at her first choice college? At the same time, remaining silent might give her what she wants—the higher GPA—but what will that decision feel like later even if she gets into her first choice college?
When I spoke to the teenager who was faced with this dilemma, she was both torn and fairly philosophical. She was frustrated with the current system of highly competitive tests and grades determining so much of her future. She questioned the effectiveness of such a system and was angry that simply because she might not test well on multiple-choice tests, she may lose a spot in college to someone who may not truly be the better overall student. She also had a tight group of friends who were amazed that she would even consider telling the teacher. This made her decision even more difficult.
This is a good case if you want to get your group to practice some real back and forth conversation around ethical choices. Most likely, you will get a nice sized camp on each side of this issue. This case also lends itself well to having students practice the art of reflective listening and persuasive argument. Often, if I stay out of the way (except for a couple of pointed questions), students change camps several times before the end of the discussion.
Discussion Questions (& Debate Topics, Writing Assignments, etc.)
- What might make this decision a hard one for Erin? Would this be a difficult decision for you? Why? Why not?
- Why do you think Erin waited almost a week to talk to her parents about her dilemma? If you were in her shoes, how long would you wait? Would you tell them at all? Would your choice depend on whether you told your parents or not?
- What you do in Erin’s place? Explain how and why you would.
- Erin’s friend had a strong opinion about what she should do. How much would your friends’ input affect your choice?
- If you were Erin’s friend, what points might you tell her that might help her make her decision?
- What traits does one need to have to be a “good student”?
- If Erin chose to keep the mistake a secret, does that make her guilty of “academic dishonesty”?
- Have you or someone you know ever had to make a similar choice where it felt like there was lot to lose in the process?