John Larrysson's Column: Strange Reasons Not To Fail A Student

Normally most people expect that if one fails their exams that they will be kept back a grade. However students are often allowed to go on to the next grade for other, less ideal, reasons.

When I was in university, I did a little work as a tutor. One of my students passed primary 5 with a grade of 50.0%.  His parents1 were surprised, because they had seen failing test papers all year long. When they confronted the teacher, she admitted that their school will not ever fail a student.

[audio 1]

They believed in the educational theory that failing students is harmful and never teaches anything. It was also troublesome for the school to keep students for an extra year. I disagree with their theory. A student that has not mastered fundamentals will be unable to handle more advanced work. By passing him they were setting this boy up for future failure. However if a school passes a student and then provides the necessary extra lessons, that is different.

[audio 2]

He was my first student, after I tutored the boy for a year, he improved. It was more than just teaching him things he missed. He needed to learn how to learn. He started to read books and maps independently and to ask questions. The next year he had the highest overall mark in his class.

I have seen many students pass onto the next grade with failed exams. Usually they are not given the extra help they need. Here are some non-academic reasons to pass a failing student that I have seen.

[audio 3]

The student misbehaves in class and the teacher does not want to deal with them for another year.

There are too many students in the year below them. The school does not want to make those classes any more crowded.

The parents have donated money to the school.

One of her parents is the school principal.1

A student, who failed quizzes and assignments all year long, gets an almost perfect mark on the exam. The cheating was ignored.2

Too many students are failing, so they can't all be allowed to repeat. 

[audio 4]

The student is 24 and the teachers just want him to finish secondary school, leave, get a job and do something useful.

The school is private and they fear that if a student is failed, the parents will take them out of the school. 

The student has serious learning disabilities and the teacher has given up trying to teach them.3

When a student in my class gets a final grade of 48 or 49%, I always re-mark their exam and try to squeeze out an extra mark.

Any time a student is failed ( or skips a year ) they need some counselling and extra lessons from teachers to make sure that problems are found and fixed. A student failing might not mean that they  are stupid, naughty or lazy. Instead it might be that the student has a learning disability or missed key skills and just needs extra lessons. 

[audio 5]


1. Biographical details, however minimal, have been altered to ensure privacy. (as usual)

2. In fact the sample sentences given for full sentence exam answers were exactly the same as the marking scheme. After checking, her younger sister also got an almost perfect score on her exams. Their mother was the English panel chair1, who allowed her children to read and memorise the exam marking scheme.

3. I dealt with a student in that situation, who had severe learning disabilities. The disabilities were ignored and every student passed. Every student at that private school always got a high grade. In form one the learning disabled student still had the writing ability of a primary one student. He was not stupid and could explain answers verbally. It was just that he could not effectively read or write. His primary school had just passed him every year until he got to me and he was the secondary school teachers’ problem. For starters I assigned online educational videos, arranged oral exams and extra lessons. 

by John Larrysson [email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for over two decades.