This occurred decades ago, you understand, so various details are fuzzy, like watching a movie with the wrong pair of glasses.  Still, some of it has been with me as an unsolved riddle since then.  I don’t claim to have a ‘right answer’.

I was in high school – perhaps a junior?  As it happens, this was a math class, and it was taught by my favorite teacher.  We had just finished a 5-question exam –  one of those tests where each question built on the information discovered in the previous problem. I left class feeling confident.

Imagine my surprise the next day when the test was returned with a D grade.  I couldn’t fathom what was happening.  Surely there was a mistake?

Further examination showed that I had made an arithmetic error in the very first problem which affected the answer to the first question.  Because of that, all the remaining questions on the test had ‘the wrong answer’, though it turned out I had worked each of those problems in the correct manner.

I was beset by a whole a cauldron of emotions.  There was wounded pride (I was too grade-conscious, especially then), there was anger (but at whom, and why?), and these began to morph into a huge sense of injustice.

Cradling all these emotions, I cautiously approached the teacher afterward.  This was my favorite teacher after all, and I was too nerdy to stir the pot too much.  Besides, I wasn’t sure I had a case anyway.  Perhaps I was merely looking for sympathy?

I tried logic:  A) I had worked all the problems ‘correctly’, and the mistake was a ‘slippery one’, as she called them herself.  B) The grade was influenced by the timing of the error – had the arithmetic goof occurred in Question 5 rather than Question 1, the test grade itself would have been much better, though the situation was nearly identical.

She replied, of course, with time-tested logic of her own.  It went something like, “I understand Larry, but in real life, it doesn’t matter where an error occurs if it throws off the final result.  You don’t get ‘partial credit’ if your building falls down.”   I couldn’t (and still can’t) argue that, of course.  It’s certainly true, then and now.

It goes without saying the grade stood.  Still, I know she was sympathetic, and I think she secretly agreed with parts of my case.  (In language that I couldn’t have articulated then, I think she was struggling with the ‘does-the-assessment-match-the-learning?’ question herself, but I’ll never know.)

As an educator, I never fully decided which one of us was ‘right’ back then.  Indeed, I’ve come to believe that the devil here is in the dichotomy – I think we were both right, and we were both wrong.  Interesting paradox.

This influenced me throughout my career in two ways.  First, how do I prepare students to ‘build solid buildings’, yet look behind temporary right/wrong ‘answers’ to assess if they’re authentically learning how to do that?!  (This question is universal, regardless of subject matter.)

And, stepping back a little, this incident was a microcosm of bigger issues.  In my own memory, we were both right, we were both wrong.  Isn’t that the case with so many issues/dilemmas in education?  Isn’t there always ‘right’ on both sides?  (If there weren’t, it wouldn’t be a ‘issue’ in the first place!)

Perhaps our searches for the ‘right answers’ to educational dilemmas should be replaced with broader searches for win/win solutions.