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Response to an Email Question about Late Work, Grading, & Responsibility

This past year I was asked to lead a workshop on the topic of Assessment FOR Learning for a school division's teachers.   

Teachers, tired from a long and full day of teaching/wrestling with children, filed into an auditorium for the "wonderful opportunity" of hearing me speak for about an hour and a half on the topic of formative assessment.  

The topic of grading came up - as it always does when talking about assessment - and a teacher asked a question about how she could get students to do work if grades weren't used as compensation.  It's hard to answer that question very completely in a short workshop, and frankly that really wasn't the point of the workshop.  The workshop's focus was on using assessment as a learning tool.  Grading is a related topic, though.

I invited the questioner to email me so that we could have a more detailed discussion.  She did just that.  Here was her email:

I don't feel like you really answered my friend's question about what to do with students who habitually turn in work late or not at all, if grades can't be used for enforcement.  You said you had lots of solutions for that, and I'd love to hear them. I follow you that grades should reflect learning, UNTIL you say that we can't deduct points for work not submitted. I don't have any idea how I'd get them to ever complete work at all if that were the case.  You mentioned using a day to make the slackers catch up while the rest of the class did something else.  If I started that, I will guarantee you that the kids would very quickly learn that there would be such a day, and NO ONE would complete work until the "catch-up day."  That's also not to mention the mountain of work that would create for the teacher, who would have to constantly grade make-up work.  Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.

This - or something like it - is a commonly asked question by teachers as they begin to explore the ramifications of formative assessment practices.  Below, in bold, is my response.  It's rather lengthy, but it's hard to answer a question like this in a few words.  

I'd love any feedback.  Got any ideas for things I should have added?

Dear ___________________,

 
Thanks for following up with an email.  While I don't pretend I can answer every question someone might have, I hate the thought of knowingly leaving people a little lost.
 
If, after reading this response, you'd like to talk more and in greater detail, let's have a phone conversation.  My number is 540-389-2610.  We could definitely schedule a time to talk.  I have given your email some thought and have embedded my replies in bold within it.
I don't feel like you really answered my friend's question about what to do with students who habitually turn in work late or not at all, if grades can't be used for enforcement.  You said you had lots of solutions for that, and I'd love to hear them.
I'm not sure if I said I had "solutions" for handling late work or not doing work.  That would ultimately involve solving some of the deeper problems of humanity :)  But I can suggest ways one can go about structuring a class to make sure that the grade represents learning even if students don't do all the assignments we ask them to do.  For more ideas, though, I would suggest reading The Power of ICU.
I follow you that grades should reflect learning,
Good - this is the key point.  All other ideas should be based off this.  It's what policy says and it's what right.  We're hired to teach kids and the assigned final grade for a course should reflect what they've learned.  Keep this in mind as well - the assigned final grade, if it reflects learning, also reflects how well we've taught.  In other words, if we're able to get a student to demonstrate "B" level learning (whatever that is exactly) but then report that they have a C, we're really downgrading ourselves.
 
UNTIL you say that we can't deduct points for work not submitted. 
If you heard me say you can't deduct points for work not submitted, then I didn't communicate clearly enough.  I would tell a teacher to deduct points for whatever he or she finds "point worthy."  However, the final grade assigned must represent learning - not lateness, neatness, etc.
 
Work not submitted - if the work is necessary to evaluate learning- should never be ignored.  A zero lets a student off the hook.  If the student cared about the zero he would have done the work to begin with.  The stricter or tougher stance - the one that actually teaches responsibility as opposed to just holding students accountable for irresponsibility - is to assign an I or incomplete and then require the student to do the work.
 
If you have children of your own, think about how you handle them when they don't do something you asked them to do.  You don't just "take off points" and move on or give them a zero.  That would let them off the hook.  Instead, you make them do what you asked them to do.  That's how one teaches responsibility.
 
Now, about responsibility.  I imagine that your school system hired you to teach a specific set of skills or content.  When it comes to instruction, assessment, and grading, your responsibility is to get kids to master that content or that instruction.  It's worth analyzing what we do in light of that mandate.  Are my steps and actions and decisions helping students learn the content and skills I was charged to teach?
 
That's what AFL is all about.  First and foremost, when we assess students it is to help them learn - not to collect points for determining a grade.
 
That leads us to the topic of students not doing the practice we assign.  The norm in education tends to be to grade that practice.  If students don't do it, they receive a zero. That zero is then averaged in with other assignments to determine a final grade.  One justification educators give for this practice is the desire to teach students responsibility.  Let's look at that a little closer:
  1. As stated earlier, this isn't how we teach our own children responsibility.  Why would it work any differently in the classroom?
  2. The fact that teachers across the country have been using this method for decades and yet the problem never seems to get better seems to be all the evidence we should need for determining that this practice does not teach responsibility.
  3. If the grade is supposed to reflect knowledge, then we know we are falsifying the final grade if we allow late points, zeros, and the like to be averaged in.  
  4. It's hard to justify knowingly falsifying a grade.  It really hurts our credibility when someone challenges the grade we assign.  We can say, "it's what they earned," but we know it's not really true.  It's what we decided to assign since we determined the rules, the points, the time frame, etc.  
It's really hard to justify a practice that we know doesn't work and that we know falsifies grades.
 
Another point to consider: We sometimes wrongly correlate DOING assigned work and COMPLYING with directions with LEARNING content.  Are there students who don't need to to do all the assignments we give in order to learn?  As educators, we get to make the rules of the class and set the expectations.  We sometimes then mistakenly decide that the only way to be responsible is to follow those rules.  If we're honest, though, in many cases the rules of responsibility are completely arbitrary.  They're aren't necessarily the same as other teachers of the same subject, they're made up by us, and they aren't required by some higher power.  
 
Sometimes it's as if we think our expectations came down from the mountain after being divinely chiseled in stone and forget that they're the rules we made up.  If those rules aren't working or if those rules don't work with all children or if those rules get in the way of our grades representing learning, then we need to consider changing them.
 
Many of the assignments we give and the corresponding grades really end up being grades for compliance.  Are we positive that the assignments we have given are the EXACT right assignments needed by each child in order to learn?  How can we be when the teacher next door who teaches the same content gives different assignments?
 
If we're completely honest, there are many cases when a student not doing the work we assign isn't really an issue of responsibility or of learning.  Instead, it is an issue of compliance with the way we think things should be.  (Or it is an issue of a family and personal circumstances that make completing certain assignments highly unlikely.)
 
I have never encountered a school division that asks teachers to assign final grades that represent a student's level of compliance.
 
I don't have any idea how I'd get them to ever complete work at all if that were the case.  You mentioned using a day to make the slackers catch up while the rest of the class did something else.  If I started that, I will guarantee you that the kids would very quickly learn that there would be such a day, and NO ONE would complete work until the "catch-up day."  That's also not to mention the mountain of work that would create for the teacher, who would have to constantly grade make-up work.
Really?  If given a choice between missing out on an exciting enriching activity - or maybe even a field day type experience - and sitting in a classroom doing school work that should have been done last week, your students would choose the latter?  That seems highly unlikely to me based on my experiences with young people around the country.  
 
I'd also ask you to describe what type of work we're talking about.  If it's classwork then they better be doing when you tell them to do it or it's a behavioral issue and it's time to involve parents and administration.  If it's homework, then perhaps they just won't get as much practice as the other students.
I'm not going to pretend that I know exactly how you should handle the situation.  I don't know what you teach; I don't know your students; I don't know what your schedule is like; I don't know what resources you have in your school - and I definitely do not know the answer to every question.  Here are some things to consider, though:
  1. Do deducted points and zeros - which definitely do provide parents and students with accurate feedback on how well a student is doing or what they have/haven't done - HAVE to count into an average at the end?  In other words, can you act as a detective looking for evidence as to what a child has mastered and then use all evidence gathered to determine how best to denote that level of mastery?  A student does or doesn't do X,Y,Z.  When it's all said and done, you could review all the evidence and then decide what helps you determine each individual student's level of mastery.  For some students, what they did on homework might really help you see what they know - maybe even better than the test does.  For others, the test might be the best indicator and the homework really doesn't tell you much.
  2. Are you assigning points to assignments in the best possible manner?  For example, if a test was worth 10,000 points while homework was worth 10 the issue of mastery (IF the test was the best indicator of mastery) would take care of itself.  I know that sounds crazy to suggest because we're so used to assignments not counting more than 100 points, but I think we can get outside the box a little.  Why do assignments not go over 100?  Who says that's the ceiling?  Let's make things worth whatever they need to be worth to result in a grade that represents mastery.
  3. Can weighting help?  Perhaps a category of formative assessments or practice assignments could be weighted a small percentage.  Daily assignments, homework, classwork - or whatever appropriate - could be added to this category, while assignments that better measure mastery could go into a summative category that had a very large percentage.  
  4. Can retakes and retests be built into the very fabric of the course instead of being something "extra" required of the teacher?  I know many teachers who assess on topic A, and then 2 weeks later assess it again, and then 4 weeks later assess it again, and then 8 weeks later assess it again.  This isn't "extra" - it's a vital part of the learning process.  Too often teachers teach something and then later in the year when they review it seems as though the students remember nothing.  People don't learn by covering something once and then months later - or longer - reviewing it.  We learn by repetition.  The beauty of the built-in retake/retest method is it allows you to let current progress outweigh or replace past scores AND it leads to better learning.
  5. Stop and think about the work we're asking students to complete.  Why are we asking them to complete it?  IF it's practice (and I realize not all of it is), AND they don't do it, doesn't it stand to reason that they won't do as well on the test or summative assessment?  If so, why would that be any less of a deterrent than taking off points on the practice assignments?  Does that make sense?  If we're trying to use points as a motivator, then why not use the points on the summative assessment as the motivator?  Then if someone wants to retake that you can say, "Sure, but first you have to go back and do all the practice."  Of course, if you have a built-in retake process you can say, "Do such and such to practice and you'll have a retake coming up next week."
  6. Could there be other rewards besides points?  If so, then you could perhaps find a better way to get students to do the work you want them to do.  I don't know your grade level or type of student, so it's hard to suggest a specific, but I have found something like a Blow Pop or candy bar often motivates students as much as points.
  7. I know you said a make up day of some sort wouldn't work - but are you positive?  If the work is that important, then making them do it might warrant altering your schedule.  After all, if doing the work will cause them to learn better then you'll be rewarded for doing so by increasing the learning of your students.  Of course, if the work doesn't help them learn then it's probably not worth it - and if the work doesn't help them learn, then it might not have been worth assigning.
  8. Can technology help you?  Could using Interactive Achievement, Moodle, Quia, IXL or some other electronic assessment tool make more frequent assessment a more successful and less stressful practice for you?
Do points serve as a motivator?  The answer is "yes" for some students and "no" for others.  
 
Using an external motivator for someone who is not motivated by the external motivator doesn't make a lot of sense.  Teachers have been frustrated forever by students not appreciating the fact that teachers are trying to motivate with points.  To keep doing something over and over again but expecting different results is a recipe for burnout.  
 
Other students are motivated by points - which makes many traditional practices work better. But.....  do we really want them to be motivated by points?  Learning content and skills is more important than collecting points to increase a numerator - right?  However, as long we stay in an "average-everything-together-world" we will continue to encourage kids to put points and grades over learning.  We have to be the brave ones who lead the migration away from the pedagogically-inappropriate practice of turning learning into point accumulation.
 
Grade books like PowerTeacher definitely make it difficult to leave this world of averaging behind, but we can't be satisfied to be ruled by the grade book.  The theoretical and potential end result warrants us playing with ways to manipulate a grade book in such a manner that learning is reflected and learning is encouraged.  
Would love to hear your thoughts on the matter.
An almost final thought - grades should be communication of learning not compensation for what was or wasn't done.  Grading is secondary to learning.  There is no need to inflate grades.  There is a need to inflate learning.  AFL practices will inflate learning.  The grade assigned should then be an accurate depiction of that learning.
 
A true final thought - don't forget - the real point is to use assessment to increase learning because the overall goal is to increase learning.  Let grading be secondary.  Don't go into a lesson plan thinking about how many points something will be worth.  Think, "How can I engage students with this content and then assess as to whether or not they 'got it?'"  IF learning is the primary focus - IF students are being regularly assessed - IF you're using assessment feedback to guide your instruction - IF students are being trained to use assessment feedback to guide their learning - and IF you desire for grades to reflect the final result of learning - THEN over time the details will begin to take care of themselves.  
I know I typed a ton, and I hope it was helpful.  Give me a call at the number I gave you above and we can discuss it in more detail.  I'd really like to help you work through this, and I'm very glad you took the time to ask me about it.
Take Care!
Scott

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Comment by Scott Habeeb on November 17, 2014 at 3:10pm

Thanks, Curtis.  Good suggestion.  Here's a link to Working on the Work

Also, here's link to 15 Fixes for Broken Grades - a wonderful resource written a contributing member of this site, Ken O'Connor.

Comment by Curtis Hicks on November 17, 2014 at 3:03pm

You might also refer this teacher to some of Phil Schlechty's work on creating engaging work for students.  Working on the Work would be a great place to start.  It outlines specific actionable steps to help teachers create engaging classroom activities that lead students to a better understanding of course standards.     

Comment by Scott Habeeb on November 17, 2014 at 11:27am

Thanks, Ken.  I think a lot of teachers are victims to the institutional inertia of the educational system.  We just do to our students what was done to us.  No one really complains because it's really all we know.  It's fun, though, to see so many educators moving into more pedagogically sound ways of looking at assessment.

Steve Kitchen - I think we should explore modifying our report cards to allow for more appropriate reporting of behavior/effort/etc.

Comment by Ken O'Connor on November 17, 2014 at 7:55am

Well said Scott. You said it all very clearly. It is so sad that the teacher felt that the only way to get students to engage was if she used a hammer.

Comment by stephen owen kitchen on November 16, 2014 at 3:19pm

You are correct, this is a topic in itself.....The grade should reflect learning of he content area.  Many years ago, the student got two grades in a subject area, one was for achievement, which was used to reflect the level of mastery of the content area, the other was effort, which showed how much work they put into it. Some students could get an high mark in achievement , but a low mark in effort, for things such as, not not turning in work, turning work in late, not taking part in class discussion, not being prepared for class,  ( you get the idea). When parents saw a poor effort grade, it tend to take precedence over the higher achievement grade. The majority of parents want to see effort form their child. Using two grades for each course took care of the dilemma of grading the content area and the work put into get that that grade.  

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