Side Issue in Grading for Learning: The Student Who "Won’t Work"

Grading policies need to be grounded in reality. That reality is this: most students will conform to the teacher’s expectations, especially if those expectations are reasonable. Teachers who set up punitive grading systems create self-fulfilling prophecies by gearing their policies to the exceptions, the what-ifs. Those teachers go looking for trouble and they find it. There will always be exceptional students on both ends of the normal population curve who will confound, amaze, and frustrate us, but creating a classroom management and/or grading policy that speaks to margins and drags the majority of students into an academic minefield is counter-productive.

So, what do we do with the student who “won’t work”?

Step One: Analyze the situation. What work is he or she refusing to do? Class work? Homework? Group work? Attending to the teacher? Taking notes on presentations? Is it “make or break” for succeeding in the course? Is the work necessary for learning or has the student already demonstrated understanding of the topic? Is the work a stated requirement of the class, grounded in district curriculum? Is the homework necessary, or does the student already have the subject under control?

We need to determine if the student is learning enough to satisfy the requirements of the course and not get hung up in procedural minutiae. “Fairness” is not treating all students alike. Fairness in education is meeting students at their own level of need. Our job is to evaluate learning, not “give credit” (the district gives “credits” for courses completed successfully).

I will do what I can to help and persuade a student to engage in learning, even to arranging required after-school tutoring for the student with the permission of the parent. If it’s simply a matter of homework not completed by a student who can score high in the test on that subject matter, what’s the point of hassling the kid or reducing the grade? Power struggles backed up by punitive grading solve nothing and don’t facilitate accurate reports of academic achievement.

Step Two: Get help. Recalcitrant students often have multiple issues that accompany their refusal to engage in learning that have to be handled professionally by all school personnel involved. Involve the parent, counselor, and administration. Go over IEPs, 504s, and make sure that all the ducks are in a row: those that will help the student and those that satisfy state and federal bureaucracy. Keep the feedback going through that loop.

Step Three: Continue to grade for learning. If the student can’t or won’t meet the requirements of the course, summative assessments will tell the tale and that’s that. No need to engage in punitive grading for “school work” that is not completed. Keep the parent, principal, and counselor informed and meet with them all as needed.

Keep a record of summative assessment grades and formative  assessment grades. Use INC (Incomplete) or NS (Not Submitted) rather than zero. Use only summative  assessment scores for report card grades, and use the formative set to back up your report card grades and your good judgment.


3 thoughts on “Side Issue in Grading for Learning: The Student Who "Won’t Work"

  1. Hmmm…very interesting. I have SO much procedural stuff I need to figure out b4 we start in August. AACK! Hey…got any opinions about good American Lit books? Stop by & share, please.

  2. Repairman, I have read and re-read this post, and, as a teacher about to begin her 14th year, it really has me re-evaluating how and why I grade.

    So, two questions:

    1. During a given grading period, how many summative grades would you have on which to base a student’s level of achievment?

    2. Given that you are not including grades for late/no work, and, given that you are not including formative assessments in the final grade calculation, what sorts of term grades are students earning? I guess what I am getting at is that the grades for the majority of the students would be on the high-end, would they not?

  3. Miss Profe, I’m glad to hear that you’re re-evaluating your grading philosophy. I didn’t enter my career with these all these ideas, although many of them developed in a half-baked sort of way that I kept to myself until I read, back in 1999, Ken O’Connors first article (1995) in the NASSP journal.

    For more of this conversation, go to “What It’s Like On the Inside” and “Not Enough Hours,” and click on the “grading” label. These two Washington State educators have had training similar to mine.

    In answer to your questions:

    1. If you group your summative assessments by district criterion-referenced goals or state standards, for a particular reporting period, you need only the most recent score(s) for a particular goal or group of subgoals.

    Older scores on the same goals should be discarded (like you wouldn’t want DMV to deny you a driver’s license because you failed a previous test).

    Bottom line: Use as many summative scores as you have different learning goals or groups of subgoals. Depending on how you keep records, you could have 5-9 according to O’Connor, but I’m comfortable with a few more. In any case, the median score for those assessments is often obvious, because you don’t have a blizzard of numbers or letters to sort through.

    2. Yes, grades are generally higher than if I had practiced “kitchen sink” grade calculation (putting everything formative and summative, every score, into a badly fermented grade “stew” that really gives no clue as to what the students have learned), but that is because I am reporting on what the student has actually learned relative to the learning goals, not whether or not they pleased me and jumped through all my idiosyncratic hoops that might distort the learning picture.

    Don’t worry about a classroom curve that is skewed to the positive side. That’s the whole point. Grading for learning reflects back to the teacher’s main goal…helping students master the subject.

    My grading guidelines are a direct reflection of what I’ve learned from some of my best-ever professional development: a two-day ASCD Institute with O’Connor, and many ETS (ATI) “Training for Trainers” sessions in Assessment Literacy.

    I hope you’ll visit the two blogs I mentioned above and take part in the conversation both over there and here.

    BTW, I’ve provided some “grading for learning” resources on another post in this label section (“grading”).

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