Grading for Learning: Dealing with the Student Who “Won’t Work” (Revisited)

Teacher 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 mandatory 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 scores and formative assessment evaluations. Use INC (Incomplete) or NS (Not Submitted) rather than zeros when recording late or missing assessments or assignments. Use only summative assessment scores for report card grades, and use the formative set to back up your report card grades and your good (professional) judgment.


6 thoughts on “Grading for Learning: Dealing with the Student Who “Won’t Work” (Revisited)

    • Stick with it, Rob, and let your teammates become consistent with you.

      Missouri has adopted Common Core Standards and you can bet the state will be moving towards not only standards-based curriculum and instruction, but standards-based assessment, grading, and reporting as well. The early adopters of sound grading practices will be ahead of the game.

      Your district’s policy specifies that grades be based on academic achievement and participation (if that is a course goal) but apparently the details are in an administrative rule or regulation.

      You might want to discuss the district’s direction with your principal. In any case, stay the course. My teammates didn’t go along with me in 2001, but by 2010 our district had a firm standards-based Policy IK. It’s going to be moving much quicker now.

  1. The one problem I have with the thought you made about summative assessment shows you what’s what is that in any job you would get fired if you do not work hard four days a week, but try really hard one day. This attitude will not work in a real world environment. Think of two employees: Employee A works hard every day, but does not necessarily put out “great work” Employee B messes around, sleeps, does not work most of the week, but does one thing well. Which employee would you rather hire?

    • Ben, you are correct about the work environment, but the analogy doesn’t apply because the goals of “real world” work and education are different.

      In the world of work, the goal is to get the job done effectively and efficiently. In the world of education, the goal is to facilitate learning as measured by assessments linked to state, and district standards; evaluate achievement of the learning goals (grading); and report that achievement accurately and consistently, and in such a way that grades are meaningful and supportive of learning.

      Since the report card grade is commonly understood to indicate how well the student has learned the curriculum, does it make sense to add in other factors that distort that report?

      Here’s a short read that will explain more:

  2. Part of an educators job is to produce productive citizens. Many of the students leaving high school do not go to college but join the work force. So how does passing “x” number of standards help this student be a productive citizen if they just happen to be intelligent and can pass the “standards” but did not have to work for it. From my understanding most classes that are taught in high school such as the math classes, the original purpose of this classes is to make a child think and to help mature a childs brain so that he/she may be able to solve real problems later in math not just math problems.

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