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.

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RU Stuck? Task vs. Proficiency

Jose Vilson and Brown Sugar encouraged me to reprise a conversation I might have had with a peer who was willing to listen and entertain non-traditional ideas about grading and reporting…

I recently had a discussion with a teacher in which I asserted that homework should be evaluated, but that evaluation, whether in the form of a letter or a percentage grade, should not be included in a report card grade if the purpose of the homework was to reinforce classroom learning (as in “formative assessment”).

Then the teacher asked what they should do if the student decided that, because the homework mark didn’t “count,” he or she would not turn in their homework.

In the case above, most teachers would try to control the errant student with punitive grading, the most frequent manifestation being the award of a zero for non-performance and then including the zero with percentage items that determine the report card grade. The teacher with whom I was conversing thought that zero was the only option.

I said, “No, it’s not the only option. Stick with the principle of not adding homework evaluation to report card grades (summative evaluation).”

He said, “Then I should just let them skip homework.”

“No,” I said, “let’s back up a second.”

I asked if we could agree that homework should be thoughtfully assigned by the teacher, and the purpose of the homework should be to reinforce knowledge or skills taught in the classroom, and not assigned without consideration of the fact that students actually have a life in addition to school.

Yes, we could agree on quality homework.

Next, I asked if he would want to pursue every student who didn’t do any homework assignment. He said he would, because otherwise it wasn’t fair to the other students.

“Suppose,” I asked, “that the student in question has an A in the class and doesn’t need to do the homework?”

“Well,” he said, “it just wouldn’t be fair to the other students if I let that one go.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, it just wouldn’t,” he said.

“Can we talk about ‘Fair,'” I asked. “There’s two ways of looking at ‘Fair.'”

“Okay,” he said.

“First,” I said, “‘Fair’ has nothing to do with anything. With regard to that particular student’s achievement, it’s all between the state standards, that student, and you. Other students don’t figure into the equation. Remember, we’re criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced, right?”

“Right.”

“Second, and this is the way I prefer to think of it, ‘Fairness is not treating all students the same. Fairness is meeting each student at their level of need.’ So we consider each student, each case, one at a time, isolated from all the others.”

“Besides,” I said, “most well performing students are doing their homework anyway, and if they miss an assignment, there’s usually a pretty good reason. You’re a teacher, not a cop, so let it go.”

“If you’re concerned about the student who chooses to ignore homework because they may fail or perform poorly in the course without the practice, then you need to find a way to support them, and that takes some investigation into the reasons they are not doing the homework, as well as an enlightened administration that will provide before and after school, and lunch-time opportunities for students to have homework supervision and help.”

“Okay,” he said, “I get it. I’m a teacher not a cop. And I’m concerned with the value of what the homework produces for the student, not the process of making sure every kid does it or else. Homework is generally formative assessment, for practice, so it doesn’t go into the report card grade. If a student who doesn’t need the practice misses a homework assignment, I don’t need to sweat it, but if a student who needs the practice misses, I find a way to help him or her get it done.”

“Right,” I said. “And besides, in all the years that I’ve observed those homework policies, I’ve never seen kids try to take advantage of me. The ones who will do it on their own, do it. If it’s late, there’s usually a good reason and it comes in later. If they’re not going to do it, you have an opportunity to support them. And I’ve never seen that mythical stack of late papers on my desk at the end of a marking period.”

Winnie-the-Pooh image copyright Walt Disney Productions

Why Zero Isn’t A Grade At All

Syllogism:

Grades represent evaluations of learning.

A zero, given for missing or late work, does not represent an evaluation of learning.

Therefore, that zero is not a grade.

Any questions?

(So, what are those zeros doing in grade books?)

(Next up: Zero and Statistical Integrity)

6 comments:

Jose said…
After reading your posts about it, it only solidified a lot about what you said with regards to learning, and I like it. I still use zero, but it’s exactly for what you mentioned: a lack of evidence of learning. In any case, have a good thanksgiving, man.
November 21, 2007 7:04 PM
Hugh O’Donnell said…
And a great Thanksgiving to you and yours!You might notice that I was commenting on your blog while you were here! 😉

November 21, 2007 8:03 PM
Teacher -n- Training said…
AMEN! That’s all I have to say
November 22, 2007 6:14 AM
Margaret said…
A lack of effort to do the assignment? A lack of effort to take the test? (or make it up, if absent) I would much rather put scores in my gradebook, but some of the students sure don’t cooperate with that.
November 23, 2007 6:45 PM
The Science Goddess said…
Oddly enough, I am finding that an “I” in the gradebook is more motivating than an “F.” Kids are more worried about having to explain to parents that they didn’t do work at all than that they did it poorly.
November 24, 2007 8:11 PM
Clix said…
My concern is that a student who has actively resisted any and all attempts to be taught the material, and wouldn’t DREAM of putting forth any effort to learn it, will be quite happy to let that “I” sit there in the gradebook.It seems like an “I” would give a student disincentive to complete an assessment for material s/he doesn’t want to learn, because an “I” neither helps nor harms the average, while a low grade will almost certainly harm it.

Think about a single exam – would you only count as right or wrong the questions a student answered, and ignore those left blank?

November 25, 2007 6:47 AM

Don’t Give a Zero! Try 50, 59, or 60. (Or not.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

 

Here’s the first in a miniseries about the folly of awarding a grade of zero for late work or work not turned in.

Part 1: The Math of Zero in a Percentage Scale

I was talking to a colleague recently about how although there is no one “right” way to grade, there certainly are justifiable and unjustifiable grades.

Then I said, innocently as I could manage,”…and giving kids zeros as a penalty for late work or for work not turned in is a perfect example of unjustifiable grading.”

He immediately went on the attack. “I’ve heard that the school board is about to require us to not give zeros! That’s outrageous! No work, no grade! We have to teach kids to be responsible!”

I didn’t know which of the four positions he took to reply to first, so I chose the easiest.

“Nope,” I said, “the school board is not about to require the high school to quit giving zeros. We’re in a conversational mode, and I hope people are willing to think about standards-based grading and talk it over.”

“However,” I followed up with, “have you given any thought to the math of zero?”

“What do you mean, the math? Zero is zero. Nothing is nothing. No work, zip. End of story.”

Realizing that I had no graceful exit strategy from this conversation if my colleague proved resistant to my charm and logic, I set up a problem for him to analyze.

“Think about this,” I suggested. “Everyone is familiar with a 4.0 GPA scale, right? What if the F (a zero, right?), in a 4.0 scale had the same weight as a zero in a scale of 0-100, the percent scale we use almost universally for grading?”

“What are you getting at?” he asked.

“Just this,” I said. “In a 4.0 scale, A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, and F=0. The difference between a D and an F is just one point. On the percentage scale, the difference between a D and a zero is 60 points. Does that seem proportionate to you?”

“No,” he said, as the math began to register. “On a 4.0 scale, if it were equivalent to a percentage scale, the F would be, what, negative 6?!”

“That’s in the ball park,” I said. “Isn’t it amazing that we teachers don’t ask these kinds of questions more often when we talk about grading?”

“Yeah,” he said thoughtfully.

“Look,” I said, “here’s a two-page article from the Phi Beta Kappan entitled   “The Case Against Zero” written by Doug Reeves, an international education consultant from in Colorado. He explains it far more eloquently than I can. Check it out.”

The following week, I asked him if he liked the article. “Man,” he said, “I am DONE with zeros!”

“Pass it on,” I said, “because there’s more…”

(Next up: Why Zero Isn’t A Grade At All)

7 comments:

Lisa said…
Okay, I am definitely sneaking this in to our Monday Meeting Madness discussion at school!
November 21, 2007 5:25 AM
Clix said…
What about a student who does the assignment and flubs it – say, earns a 40? Have they earned the same grade as someone who turned in complete gibberish?Secondly, could this not be resolved equally well by going to a 4.0 scale instead of percentiles? I think a lot of it is a difference in understanding what “zero” means.
November 21, 2007 5:37 AM
roller coaster teacher said…
Our district have gone DuFours and PLC on us (lame wording, but does it make sense? Rick and Becky DuFours and their professional learning communities) for the past year or so. Anyway, at one training, Mr. DuFour explained the “math of zero” just like you did here, and a massive light bulb turned on in my head.I definitely vote for switching to 4.0 grading scale/system.
November 22, 2007 5:28 AM
Hugh O’Donnell said…
Good luck, Lisa! Buy-in is essential (not 100%, but “significant”).Clix, I think you answered your own question. What’s the difference between a 40 and a genuine zero? Treat them both like Fs, which is what a 50-60 would be in the percentile scale.Fortunately, these hypothetical objections rarely pop up in real life. But no system is bullet-proof. ;)Both kids need the opportunity for remediation if they demonstrate the willingness to engage in further learning, and the inclusion of their more recent, and, we hope, higher score in their grade.RCT, glad to see you here!The DuFours are on track. Our district went with the Doug Reeves program because we were presented the opportunity to get the whole enchilada free, courtesy of our Educational Service District. 

We’ve also been heavily influenced by Stiggins on classroom assessment, and O’Connor on standards-based grading, and Marzano’s work in several areas, including the “nine categories of instructional strategies.”

November 22, 2007 10:08 AM
ms-teacher said…
Thanks for this. My assumption then is if I assign 20 points to an assignment, then the lowest score a student could receive is 10 points. This makes sense to me. However, what do you did with a student who is rarely, if ever, in class and so misses out on most of the instruction and no learning takes place?
November 23, 2007 11:23 AM
Hugh O’Donnell said…
Ms-Teacher, if you have plenty of INCs in your gradebook that were never made up, and the attendance is really poor, you have enough evidence to flunk the kid without worrying about the math. An F is an F.Your question really highlights why we shouldn’t just use numbers to assess learning. We have to make authentic judgments backed by sufficient valid and reliable evidence.Do what works for most of the kids. The exceptions to the rule will work out intuitively, i.e., with common sense.
November 23, 2007 5:44 PM
The Science Goddess said…
I think we also need to be forgiving of ourselves as professionals—and remember that we are humans evaluating other humans. Subjectivity is a fact of the matter. The percentage system gives a false sense of security that we’re being wholly objective about achievement.
November 24, 2007 8:14 PM

What’s "Fair"?

In a recent discussion with another teacher, I asserted that homework should be evaluated, but that evaluation, whether in the form of a letter or a percentage, should not be included in a report card grade if the purpose of the homework was to reinforce classroom learning (as in “formative assessment”).

Then the teacher asked what they should do if the student decided that, because the homework mark didn’t “count,” he or she would not turn in their homework.

In the case above, most teachers would try to control the errant student with punitive grading: a zero, perhaps, for non-performance, and then averaging the zero along with the letter or percentage items that determine the report card grade. The teacher I was speaking with thought that zero was the only option.

I said, “No, it’s not the only option. Stick with the principle of not adding homework evaluation to report card grades (summative evaluation).”

He said, “Then I should just let them skip homework.”

“No,” I said, “let’s back up a second.”

I asked if we could agree that homework should be thoughtfully assigned by the teacher, and the purpose of the homework should be to reinforce knowledge or skills taught in the classroom, and not assigned without consideration of the fact that students actually have a life in addition to school.

Yes, we could agree on quality homework.

Next, I asked if he would want to pursue every student who didn’t do any homework assignment. He said he would, because otherwise it wasn’t fair to the other students.

“Suppose,” I asked, “that the student in question has an A in the class and doesn’t need to do the homework?”

“Well,” he said, “it just wouldn’t be fair to the other students if I let that one go.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, it just wouldn’t,” he said.

“Can we talk about ‘Fair’?” I asked. “There’s two ways of looking at ‘Fair.'”

“Okay,” he said.

“First,” I said, “‘Fair’ has nothing to do with anything. With regard to that particular student’s achievement, it’s all between the state standards, that student, and you. Other students don’t figure into the equation. Remember, we’re criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced, right?”

“Right.”

“Second, and this is the way I prefer to think of it, ‘Fairness is not treating all students the same. Fairness is meeting each student at their level of need.’ So we consider each student, each case, one at a time, isolated from all the others.”

“Besides,” I said, “most well performing students are doing their homework anyway, and if they miss an assignment, there’s usually a pretty good reason. You’re a teacher, not a cop, so let it go.”

“If you’re concerned about the student who chooses to ignore homework because they may fail or perform poorly in the course without the practice, then you need to find a way to support them, and that takes some investigation into the reasons they are not doing the homework, as well as an enlightened administration that will provide before and after school, and lunch-time opportunities for students to have homework supervision and help.”

“Okay,” he said, “I get it. I’m a teacher not a cop. And I’m concerned with the value of what the homework produces for the student, not the process of making sure every kid does it or else. Homework is generally formative assessment, for practice, so it doesn’t go into the report card grade. If a student who doesn’t need the practice misses a homework assignment, I don’t need to sweat it, but if a student who needs the practice misses, I find a way to help him or her get it done.”

“Right,” I said. “And besides, in all the years that I’ve observed those homework policies, I’ve never seen kids try to take advantage of me. The ones who will do it on their own, do it. If it’s late, there’s usually a good reason and it comes in later. If they’re not going to do it, you have an opportunity to support them. And I’ve never seen that mythical stack of late papers on my desk at the end of a marking period.”

Never. Honest.