New Ways of Thinking About Achievement and Grading

I feel as if the ground has shifted beneath my feet. As I read through chapters two and three of O’Connor’s How to Grade for Learning, K-12, I was hit with an epiphany; I had been using grades to punish and/or reward my students, not to communicate their achievement of process and product goals in their purest form. Though there were certainly many aspects of achievement present in my report writing, grades were not the “vehicles of clear communication” that I had once thought (O’Connor, 2009).

 

O’Connor reminds us that grades are not the venue to communicate poor attendance, punctuality, or even behavioral issues. This was not the case at my last school in Bolivia. During a beginning of the year meeting, the middle school teachers discussed the policies surrounding homework, deciding that no credit would be issued for late work for mathematics and science but one day late in the other subjects was allowable. The working logic was that math is sequential; if students did not complete their required assignments on time, they would quickly fall behind in acquiring the knowledge and skills necessary for the next concept. Our policy for the other subjects was an allowance of one day late with percentage deductions (Grade 6= 10%, Grade 7= 15%, Grade 8=20%). We also decided that homework would be weight to only 15% of students’ grade; the rest was based upon quizzes, projects, tests and a non-academic grade (timeliness, punctuality, behavior, participation). My own experience is that once a students’ assignment is late, even if they turn the work in for a grade (with a reduction in score or not) the majority of time the work is not completed to expectation.

 

Prior to the change in administration the year I arrived, the cultural climate supported cheating; it was a rampant problem. Once homework was graded in class it was far too easy to copy the correct answers and turn it in late for a grade without any consequences. O’Connor points out that it is better to have a policy of prevention rather than punishment, and I agree, yet sometimes there are cultural norms (when working internationally) surrounding cheating that are at play. For example, when I worked in Egypt, it was a normative cultural expectation that good friends helped their friends pass their classes, even if it meant cheating during tests, engaging in plagiarism and copying homework assignments. O’Connor recommends that districts and schools should have clear policies regarding academic honesty and report these incidences yet parents, in the countries I have worked in are not always supportive and attempt to interfere with the consequences.

 

I have to admit that not only the mathematics and science teachers, but also all of the teachers in Bolivia that had taught at the school for a number of years, reported a sharp decrease in late homework and a decrease in the opportunity to cheat. This is in sharp contrast to the anecdotal reports that I heard from the Middle Years Program (MYP) teachers at the International Baccalaureate (IB) world school in Mongolia that I had taught at prior. I heard a number of MYP teachers complaining that some of their students were chronically late with assignments and projects, only to turn enough assignments in the last couple days before reports were written to pass their class. According to the MYP coordinator, this was standard IB philosophy regarding student work; it should always be accepted up until the last moment before reports were written. This became a problem with students entered that more rigid structure of the Diploma Programme (DP) in Eleventh Grade. The system and expectations were much more clearly defined and rigid, proving for many students that had not acquired punctual work habits sooner, a distressing transition.

 

I wonder what will happen to these types of students when they enter university? I know that I did not typically reach my potential in middle and high school; assignments were often not completed in classes that I didn’t enjoy but I managed to have a range of one or two C’s a couple B’s and the rest A’s. When I went to college, the shock of trying to manage work and classes was nearly too much; it took time for me to acquire the study skills necessary to not find success. I wonder if I had actually flunked one of my middle or high school classes due to not turning my work in, if my parents would have taken notice and set forth expectations that included completion of all homework.

 

If homework and projects are thought of as means to extend student thinking in ways that directly feed into achievement, then it seems logical that its’ timely completion is necessary. If half of my students haven’t completed the reading or discussion questions that were the springboard for the day’s work, where do I go from there? I had two sections of grade 8 in my last school. Nearly every time we had class, there were those students that did their work, and those that did not; these students were concentrated into the smaller class section. This completely changed the learning dynamic and potential between the classes; essentially, I had to teach two different classes due to the lack of follow-through from some of the students. Because their class was smaller, it made a difference that a higher proportion of students weren’t prepared for our lesson.

 

I had a student in one of my classes last year that I struggled with. He refused to do his homework, would often be off-task and disruptive to other students’ learning, and would not bring his materials. I worked hard to engage him in cooperative learning endeavors and class discussion achieving moderate participation, but at times he was off-task to the point that I had to removed him from the group environment. I had numerous meetings with parents, middle school principal, guidance counselor, and the student. I sent emails and progress reports and wrote office referrals. I had mandatory sessions in my class to complete work after school; when I was in meetings, I mandated he attend the school’s after school supervised homework club; it seemed like nothing worked.  The year prior, his mother sat with him after school everyday to complete his homework. Although this student didn’t do any of the homework or projects during the school year, he usually listened in class and would occasionally engage in discussion; he was able to demonstrate an adequate level of achievement on his written finals.

 

This is an example (Example_studentM) of the comments I wrote on his final report card; he received an F as his final grade in English. Twenty percent of his grade reflected the nearly zero percent he received for homework completion and the zero percent he received for his non-academic grade; I now understand that these are not indicators of his achievement. Another fifty percent of his grade was based upon project completion, group work and daily journals. Upon reflection, I probably should have given him a N/B for his grade indicating no basis from which to base a grade. This student was capable of expressing himself orally and textually. However, what I explained to him and his parents was that he had not made any progress this year in English. For all intents and purposes he was still in the same place as when he began the year. I believe it takes practice to hone the knowledge and reasoning skills necessary to become an articulate consumer and producer of English; last year (and apparently the year prior) was a waste for this student. This feels like a very complicated issue. In full honesty, I have to admit that my thinking while writing comments and entering a final grade was that he earned what he deserved. In retrospect, this feels like his grade was punitive and despite his lack of effort, didn’t truly speak to his achievement in my class.

 

I am still working out how I feel about accepting late assignments and projects, and the role that homework and non-academic dispositions should play in grades. I do believe there is a real-life connection between punctual follow through of tasks yet I see the disparity of reporting achievement vs. timeliness, participation and behavior. The reading cited an example of a student that was fed-up with receiving a C in a class even though he achieved A’s on all test and quizzes because he didn’t do the review sheets for the tests and quizzes. I wonder if this student is being properly challenged, perhaps he is gifted and/or talented in this particular content area and should receive a modified curriculum? I think that before I can clearly articulate and even sort-out what I am thinking, I need to do some more thinking around not only the purposes but also the practicalities of achievement reports.

 

 

References

O’Connor, Ken. (2009). How To Grade for Learning, K-12. Thousand Oaks, CA: Corwin.

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