Grading Homework: More Food for Thought

My recent post entitled “Am I Not Being Clear?” sparked more conversation than any other single piece that I posted here in several years.  The idea of grading reform and of motivating students without grades really struck a nerve with some.  When I challenged teachers who struggle to understand why I don’t include homework in my students’ grades to test it out themselves, I wrote,

“Based on my personal experience and anecdotal stories from colleagues,less than 15% of students fall into the third category [of students who only do homework when it affects their grades].”

In response, a regular Scripted Spontaneity reader and commenter (who uses the moniker “Last Teacher Standing”) challenged these numbers.  She conducted the experiment that I suggested and reported back with her results.  She wrote,

“This means that when it ‘counted’, 90% had their homework. When it didn’t ‘count’, 48% completed it.”

My first response was “Wow”.  Not only did she push back in that meaningful way that I so value in PLN, but she also found results that were starkly different from what I and others have seen.

As I imagine most people would feel, my first reaction was to defend myself.  I wanted to reply with a comment about how her results didn’t really change anything.  Or, that it was a fluke that wouldn’t hold up to further observation.  I wanted to prove that she was wrong and I was right.

Thankfully, my better judgment took over, and I look closely at her data.  I started to think about the differences between my classroom and hers.  I reflected on the conclusions and explanations that one could draw from a side-by-side comparison of these two groups of students (hers and mine).  Here’s what I came up with:

  • Students differ considerably in their performance between classes, teachers, schools, states, and countries*.  The results of one group (or even several groups) should never be assumed to represent any significantly larger group.  This is the arrogance of statistical sampling, and I fell prey to it more readily than I should have.
  • The motivation that grades provide for some students to complete their homework is a false one.  Extrinsic motivation is short-lived (according to Dan Pink, it only lasts as long as the reward is there).  If we truly value a strong work ethic and believe that our students need to learn to work hard because it will reap rewards later in life, than we must find other, more authentic ways to reinforce this skill.
  • The disfunction in ubiquitous ABCDF grading systems is profound.  We have so completely obscured the true meaning of a letter grade (at the end of a term) that it is nearly impossible to know from this one measure whether a student has learned the state-mandated curriculum.  It’s not just that teachers include other information in that grade; it’s that parents often expect it to include theses “extras”.  They expect that an A represents how hard their child worked that marking period, how well she behaved, how much homework she completed, how well she studied, how polite she was to the teacher, and–oh, yeah–how much she learned.  It’s a system that feeds back into itself over and over again.  Teachers say that they need to grade homework so that parents will see zeroes and make the children do the work.  Parents say that they make their children do the work because the teacher gave their child a zero.
  • Many teachers, through their classroom procedures and policies, create a culture of high expectations that results in extremely high rates of homework completion.  While you could argue that this positive outcome comes at a cost in terms of conflating work behaviors with content mastery, there is no debating its effectiveness in many cases.

So, what’s the solution?  Clearly, some teachers can’t (and shouldn’t!) just go cold turkey and stop including homework in students’ average.  Reporting systems must first be in place, along with rewards and consequences at the outset, to provide information about homework (and classwork/participation/behavior) habits to parents and students in meaningful and informative ways before removing the grade-based motivation.  We must make this transition, however, if a letter is ever going to be a meaningful measure of student curriculum mastery

That’s the message I took away from Last Teacher Standing’s data.  If the number of students who are only motivated by grades (directly or through their parents) is even higher than I thought than the problem is even more serious.  We must find a different way to get those grade-motivated students (15% or 42%) to do their practice work, because someday in their lives these students won’t be earning a grade for completing their TPS Reports:




*Note: I happen to know that Last Teacher Standing‘s students and my own are very similar, so this point is less relevant to this situation.


Measuring mastery or preparing for the future

flickr user madamepsychosis

As you might remember, I have spent the past two years using a grading system that is focused on measuring mastery through repeated attempts and separating summative work from formative work.  I believe so strongly in the philosophy behind the ABCi grading system that I find myself preaching about it to nearly everyone I bump into.

One of the biggest bits of push-back that I hear from all sorts of people (educators and non-educators) runs along the lines of “What are you teaching kids about the real world when you allow them to retake and turn in work late with no consequences?”  These folks often complain that “kids these days” don’t have a strong work ethic and have been coddled for much of their academic lives.

I understand the argument and I can sympathize with those who advance it.  I, too, have seen a decline in the intrinsic motivation of my students.  This makes it all the more difficult for me to pursue a policy in my classroom that allows some students to avoid responsibility until the very end of the academic quarter.  But, my personal teaching philosophy is that my job is to educate children according to my State-mandated curriculum and to do this I need to know what they know.  If mastery takes time and repeated efforts, I must provide both.

In essence, it comes down to one question: Do we want teachers to teach to mastery or to prepare students for the “next level” (high school, college, workplace, etc.)?  Often these two goals align and the answer is “both”.  For example, when I teach students to critically examine the sources of information, I am teaching them to master skills that the Powers That Be have determined are important and that will make them better citizens.

But, sometimes, these two objectives are mutually exclusive.  Take, for example, a student who struggles to understand the content of my class.  When the time comes for the test, he might study hard or he might not.  After the test, when he gets his failing score, he comes to me for one-on-one lunchtime tutoring (or pairs up with a peer).  After a few more days, I allow him to retake the test (actually, another version of the test) and he improves.  To me, this is a complete success as his mastery has improved in a way that it would not have if I had simply given him an F and moved on.  To those who would argue against this policy, I have done the student harm by not holding his feet to the fire and declaring his first effort to be his only one.

In many ways, this question is the most critically important middle school dilemma of them all.  Do we choose to do what is in the best interest of our students’ learning right now, or do we focus on preparing them for their long-term “needs”?  I don’t know the best answer, but I know the one that makes sense to me.

Do I have it all wrong?  Am I robbing my students of a quality character-building experience?


My Experiment in Grading: Update #1

Judging from the response to my post about the new grading system that I am employing this semester, there are a lot of teachers currently trying (or considering trying) big leaps of faith in grading practices.  As a sort of testimonial, here is a snapshot of where my adventure stands as of the end of the Third Quarter.  For more information about what these changes are, please check out the link above.

chemistry_experimentThe student response to my introduction of the system in early January was positive.  That’s not a surprise.  Students that normally excel had a chance to improve their low A’s to high A’s.  Students who routinely bomb tests and quizzes saw an opportunity to do an autopsy and correct the grade.  Most surprising, however, is that parents have not complained.  I worried expected that some parents would be confused or concerned about how the new system would work and that my inbox would be overwhelmed.  Instead, I have not received a single piece of email from a single parent about the new system.  The main reason is probably my proactive approach: I put up a clear webpage that explained the system and I added a message to the website where my grades are available for parents and students to view online.

My teammates have engaged me in some spirited and exciting discussions about the philosophy and practicality of my system.  As my colleague Bill Ferriter is fond to say, the conversation has really expanded my own thinking on the subject.  Their Devil’s Advocate has helped me to crystallize my own ideas and clarify the “why” and the “how” of this dramatic change to my grading practices.  One teacher in particular, has been a sounding board for my quotes from Ken O’Connor and has pushed back with real and necessary criticism of what I am doing. I haven’t wavered in my resolve to make this change, in fact, I feel stronger knowing that she has helped me to consider the issues in play.

In the midst of all of this, I was asked to present (along with several others) to a large group of teacher leaders (~180) from all over my district last week.  They gave me fifteen minutes to sum up all of the changes that I made.  My presentation met with an unbelievably positive reaction and I am currently working with over a dozen teachers who want to do something similar in their schools and classrooms.  You can check out my slides below (to see notes from the presentation, click on the slideshow to go to SlideShare):


Where does that leave me now?  Well, on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d say that the experiment is currently rating a 7.  I have had some success, but I also haven’t faced many challenges yet.  Third Quarter report cards will be distributed just before our year-round three-week break, and I’m likely to have some questions to answer when I return.  Fourth quarter may prove to be the true test of my ability to communicate the advantages of improved grading practices.

Right now, I have to decide how to remediate those that aren’t getting it, and what to do with those who refuse to retake an Incomplete (earned for an assessment that scores below a C).  Still discovering new questions, while searching for some answers.  Stay tuned for more updates.

P.S.  According to this recent article in the New York Times, even college students confuse the purpose of a grade, expecting their effort to result in a good grade regardless of their mastery of the content.  It’s going to be a long road…


My Resolution? No more failures.

gradesI suppose it is a bit of a cliche to make a New Year’s Resolution that is unattainable, and I want to make it clear that this is not my intent.  I have spent my eight-year teaching career migrating across the spectrum from an ultra-easygoing “friend to every student” to a “sage on the stage” to where I am today.  As I look at what I teach and how I teach it, I am left feeling inadequate.

Partly, this depressing assessment comes from the many competing interests that drive my teaching style and my personal philosophy.  First, I am a scientist.  I believe that every single American child needs to leave our public school system with the fundamental scientific literacy necessary to be a thoughtful and independent citizen.  Specifically, I find myself more and more frustrated with the growing tide of anti-vaccination efforts and “teach the controversy” movements that are based on pseudo-science and fueled by the ignorance of many Americans.  I know that sounds harsh, but it’s shockingly true.  I’m not an activist teacher, but I do make a concerted effort to dispel misconceptions and make it clear that science is just a very powerful problem-solving technique.

But, I am also a teacher and father who knows that children learn in different ways and at different paces.  Is it really productive to set absolute standards that some children will not be able to reach?  I have seen many times the impact of students who no longer believe that they can succeed.  They become the bullies and class clowns that pull me away from teaching and engaging other students.  It’s clear to me that we need to keep the carrot far enough ahead of each student so that he is motivated to achieve, but close enough that he doesn’t lose hope.

I take personally much of the criticism that is leveled against the public education system, claiming that we coddle children and protect them from the cruel realities and unyielding requirements of the “real world”.  How do we reconcile these opposing viewpoints?  Do we determine some basic level of mastery and require it of every student?  Or, do we seek to move each student forward a set amount each year, regardless of whether they achieve mastery?

These are the questions that keep me up at night.  Well, these questions and a disturbing addiction to caffeine.  In search of an answer, I have spent this holiday break (mine is combined with a two-week year-round track-out break) reading and collaborating with my PLN.  I owe much of where I stand today on what I’ve learned from Ken O’Connor’s “How to Grade for Learning“, the formative assessment work of Page Keeley, and some sage advice from Science Goddess (who recommended the O’Connor book).  The short and sweet version of it is this: Beginning this semester, I am utilizing a grading system based on no failing marks.  Students who submit work that does not meet the standards set for a “C” will earn an “Incomplete” until the work is re-submitted at the requisite level.  Students who go above and beyond the minimum requirements will continue to earn “A” and “B” marks.

The philosophy behind this grading system is a topic for another post, but suffice it to say it rewards my highly motivated students while simultaneously encouraging those with substandard work to see their work as the product of revision and improvement.  Once it’s up and running, this system should result in a zero percent failure rate as measured by mastery of the minimum standards (that’s a “C”).

I don’t know whether we are best served by encouraging our more challenged students with marks based  at least partly on effort, or whether we need to draw that line in the sand and say, “If you don’t get to this point, you can not pass my class.”  The answer may seem obvious, but it so difficult to watch a student with a low I.Q. put forth a Herculean effort and still not reach the bar.  Clearly, we need a place for these students, and this system doesn’t provide it.  What is unclear at this time is what will happen to those whom I remediate to no avail.


For now, I am on my own with this little experiment, as my school and district move with glacial speed toward some undefined “improvement in grading practices”. I believe strongly in this change and I simply can’t wait for those in power to make the difficult decisions that are needed.  As I recently shared with a colleague who has played devil’s advocate to many of my grading arguments, the change has to start somewhere.