Am I Not Being Clear? [REPOST]

In celebration of the fifth anniversary of this blog, I am re-posting some of my favorite entries from the past five years.  Be sure to check out some of the very interesting and thought-provoking comments on the original post from May 2011.

I have found myself engaging in more grading discussions, both within my school and outside of it, than ever before.  Some of these have been spurred by administrative efforts to standardize grading in my building and others by conversation between novice and veteran educators.

Earlier this week, I raised my voice in a meeting and jumped out of my seat–red in the face–to make the point that my grading system does not ignore homework or take away any incentive to complete it.  I said,

“Homework is formative practice that is intended to build skills, and therefore does not measure mastery, and shouldn’t be used to calculate a child’s grade.  I use other means, such as behavioral consequences, as motivation for my unmotivated students to complete their homework.  Giving a grade isn’t motivating those students now anyway.  Grading homework is already not working, so why not try something different?”

It’s a hard pill to swallow for a lot of my colleagues, but I think that it is a critical transition for our profession to make.  We need to refocus on the purpose of grades as measures of curriculum mastery and develop other measures and reporting methods for informing parents of character education, work ethic, behavior, etc.

To this end, I have developed a simple test for those who want to know how important it is to stop including homework (and all forms of practice) in a student’s grade:

  1. Next week, give your students a homework assignment on Monday.  Tell students that it will be graded and factored into their average.  On Tuesday, record how many students did the assignment and how many did not.
  2. On Wednesday, give your students a second homework assignment.  Tell them that whether they complete it adequately or not will be reported to their parents, but it will not affect their average in class.  Again, record how many students complete the assignment and how many do not.

Your students will fall into one of three categories:

  • Students who completed both assignments. These students will do assigned work whether it’s graded or not.  They are motivated by the challenge, by the mark reported to their parents, or by some other factor (not including grades).  Their homework completion will not change if you stop including homework in their grades.
  • Students who completed neither assignment. These students are not self-motivated and are also not motivated by grades.  Their homework completion will not change if you stop including homework in students’ grades.  They need something else.
  • Students who only completed the first assignment. These are the only students who are motivated to do their homework by the effect on their grade.  If you stop including homework in their average, they will need a new motivator to encourage them to complete it.

Based on my personal experience and anecdotal stories from colleagues, less than 15% of students fall into the third category. Moreover, these students have been led to believe that a grade is a reward (or, at least, leads to one) rather than a measurement.  These are the same students who beg for extra credit and who want desperately to know if what you are discussing will be “on the test”.  This group of students needs to learn that practice leads to mastery, and mastery leads to success in more complex subjects.

To be clear, I value the practice that homework provides.  I give homework assignments.  I grade them.  I provide constructive feedback to students.  I report the quality of homework to parents and students.  I do not factor homework into my students’ averages.

To those who would call my system flawed, I say this: If students only do homework because it improves their grade, why do only 15% stop doing it when it no longer affects their grade?  Why do 20% or more avoid doing it even when it does affect their grade?  We include homework in a student’s average to motivate them to do it, but yet many are not incentivized by this practice.  It’s not working.

Moreover, this issue gets at the heart of how confusing a student’s grade can be.  What does an A mean? Hard work and average mastery?  Strong mastery and no work ethic?  Below grade-level understanding but amazing effort?  If you can’t say, then it isn’t a useful piece of information to share with parents and students.


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