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A deep dive into whether -- and how -- homework should be graded

The Washington Post logo The Washington Post 2/6/2023 Valerie Strauss
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Homework has been a source of contention since it was first assigned in U.S. public schools in the 1800s. By 1900, it had become so unpopular in some circles that an editorial by Edward Bok, the influential editor of the Ladies’ Home Journal, had this headline: “A National Crime at the Feet of American Parents.”

“The child is made to study far, far beyond his physical strength, and consequently his mental good,” Bok wrote, arguing that kids under age 15 should be outside playing with friends after school and should go to sleep after dinner. Homework was banned for a while in public schools in Boston, the entire state of California and other places, and from 1900 to 1940 progressive education scholars tried to get it abolished everywhere.

They ultimately lost, but debate over the value of homework for students, especially young ones, continues today, along with a relatively new wrinkle: Should homework be graded? It’s part of a revolution in grading that has quietly been underway for years in some districts but that gained attention when more districts began looking at changing grading systems during the coronavirus pandemic.

This article looks in depth at the controversy over grading homework. It was written by Rick Wormeli, a former National Board Certified teacher in Virginia who now consults with schools and districts on classroom practice and grading systems. He is the author of “Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessment and Grading in the Differentiated Classroom, Second Edition.

Teachers second-guess letter grades as they search for a fairer way

By Rich Wormeli

Some school districts in our area are considering proposals to revise their policies for reporting homework completion and students’ timely adherence to deadlines so that these reports do not count in final, academic grades of subject content. A few in these communities are pushing back on this idea, declaring that such policies do not teach responsibility, with at least one observer calling the suggested policies, “dumb,” and, “a formula for disaster.” (See, Mathews, “Abolishing grades on homework will hurt the neediest kids,” Washington Post, Dec. 26, 2021, and his follow-up piece on the same topic on April 3, 2022). To these individuals, I offer a deeper dive, as the new policies are legitimate.

Everyone in a student’s academic life agrees that grades should be accurate reports of student proficiencies regarding what is being taught: One student’s grade in science reflects her understanding of photosynthesis, and another’s grade in Algebra reflects his skills in graphing inequalities. With accuracy like this, we can provide helpful feedback and make effective decisions regarding students’ current and future learning.

If we include reports of elements not indicative of the proficiencies we claim to report, we distort the truth about students’ learning. We are an ethical profession, however; we don’t lie to students or their parents. It makes sense, then, to remove any practice that falsifies grade reports and to do more of those things that assure truthful reporting.

With integrity paramount, we cannot conflate the report of doing things (compliance) with the reporting of learning things (mastery or proficiency), as doing so distorts the accuracy of the report of either one individually. During the years of my teaching in Loudoun and Fairfax County schools, some students demonstrated 75 percent proficiency in the previous year’s material, but the previous year’s teachers recorded an A or 100 percent on their report cards because these students completed homework on time, maintained organized notebooks, and worked collaboratively. These elements counted 25 percent of the grade. They were helpful things, of course, but they were not evidence of what teachers claim to be reporting.

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In addition, we do not want to give students a false sense of competence in their learning as this creates embarrassment later when they, their parents, and future teachers think students are competent, but it turns out to be a mirage. These individuals are left gawping at what others in their courses easily understand and do. This can happen when we buffer grades with elements such as “completed homework,” and adding extra points to an assignment’s score because the student brought in extra canned food for the canned food drive.

So, what does this mean for modern grading practices? It means we report elements like homework completion and timely adherence to deadlines separately from subject proficiency on the report card. We are careful not to blur the lines between reporting students’ compliance with tasks with students’ proficiency in Latin declension or proper weightlifting techniques.

Work on homework assignments is not evidence of final level of proficiency. Instead, it provides feedback and informs where we go next in instruction. No professional in any field would accept weaving in reports of their first, inexact, attempts in learning with the final report of their solid competence at the end of their learning journey and proven licensure, as it would create a false report of current proficiency. If we wouldn’t tolerate this inaccurate reporting in working world evaluations, what makes it legitimate in our schools? The grade at course’s end should be an accurate report for the subject proficiencies demonstrated at that point, not a report of the road students traveled to get there.

Consider, too, that homework assignments are used as coaching and practice tools for students as they learn content and skills. Any assessment of learning along the way such as we get when looking over students’ practice work is a one-moment-in-time progress check as students grow towards demonstrable competence. Here, we provide timely feedback, and students self-monitor their learning rather than depending exclusively on others to tell them how they are doing. As a result, students own their learning, and learned helplessness and making excuses fall away.

We don’t want to invoke self-preservation here, which happens often with adolescents. If our first steps with a topic are allowed to significantly alter the final report of our competence in that topic, we self-preserve, protect ego, and essentially give up, letting you think we can do it but that we choose not to, or were irresponsible. For many of us, it’s better you think me competent than give you proof that I’m incompetent and don’t belong. Interestingly, teachers are actually more demanding of students by maintaining students’ hope in their learning potential. Invoking self-preservation with high stakes homework, however, lets students escape the burden of their learning and growing maturity.

To provide gravitas and help educators and communities avoid deflecting on this issue, consider the many court cases speaking to this concern, with brief statements from two of them included here (taken from Guskey and Brookhart, “What We Know about Grading”):

  • Smith v. School City of Hobart (1993): “A federal judge rules that grade reductions for nonacademic reasons result in, “clear misrepresentation of the student’s scholastic achievement, … Misrepresentation of achievement is equally improper … and illegal whether the achievement is misrepresented by upgrading or downgrading, if either is done for reason that are irrelevant to the achievement being graded. For example, one would hardly deem acceptable an upgrading in a mathematics course for achievement on the playing field.”
  • Court[s] … have relied on grade accuracy to mean “the extent that it permits someone to estimate the extent of a student’s knowledge and skills in a given area” (Chartier, 2003, p. 41)…[I]ncluding factors such as ability, effort, improvement, or work completion in grades may not be legally defensible.”

Finally, let’s look at the research on teaching accountability and whether counting practice (homework) and penalties for late work in academic course grade teaches students self-discipline and responsibility. Consider (from Guskey’s “Five Obstacles to Grading Reform”):

[N]o research supports the idea that low grades prompt students to try harder. More often, low grades prompt students to withdraw from learning. To protect their self-images, many students regard the low grade as irrelevant or meaningless. Others may blame themselves for the low grade but feel helpless to improve (Selby & Murphy, 1992).

To those expressing concerns about teaching responsibility, I invite you to study the research and many resources on how adults cultivate such maturity in their students. Policies such as one grade lower for each day late and counting homework completion in the final performance of proficiency don’t hold up under scrutiny. Tom Schimmer, author of “Grading from the Inside Out,” and former teacher and principal, wrote:

One of the biggest misunderstandings of standards-based grading is that the non-achievement factors don’t matter; they do. Achievement grades are the reason students will ultimately gain entry into college; their habits of learning are the reason they will graduate from college. It is not okay for students to turn work in late. But it’s equally not okay to distort achievement levels as a result of lateness.

He also wrote that having such a factor contribute “to a student’s achievement grade would be inequitable and even unethical.”

Students are behind in math and reading. Are schools doing enough?

All of us want students to develop self-discipline, perseverance, time management, consideration for others, and to start projects the week they are assigned instead of five weeks later, the night before they are due. If we look closely, though, we find that none of the research on how to teach these skills calls for counting homework in the final academic grade or by recording unrecoverable zeros and F’s when work is not completed or not completed on time.

What we find instead are robust and practical insights for building executive function skills, fostering independence, asking students to self-monitor their own learning, building agency (voice and choice in learning), and facilitating students’ growing self-efficacy.

For example, consider these major executive function skills promoted in “Smart, but Scattered for Teens”: response inhibition, working memory, emotional control, flexibility, sustained attention, task initiation, planning/prioritizing, organization, time management, goal-directed persistence, and metacognition. Do we see anything here that would contribute positively to homework completion and student success? Yes, all of them. Let’s overtly teach these skills instead of scolding from afar in the mistaken assumption that lowering grades helps students mature.

Reporting homework separately is making sure homework “counts,” putting homework completion on its own radar, and giving it increased importance, not less. This is raising expectations, not lowering them. It’s a teacher cop-out when we assign unrecoverable zeros and F’s to work not done on the timeline we declared, as students don’t have to do it now. The message is clear here: This work is skippable and not important. If it’s worth assigning, however, it matters: It’s not busy-work, it’s not skippable. The consequence for not doing your work is giving up other activities and doing the work.

Admissions officers and military recruiters over the decades share repeatedly that they like to see work habits such as homework completion and timely adherence to deadlines reported separately for all four years of high school. This allows them to trust the academic grades as more accurate indicators of students’ real learning and to gauge the candidate’s mettle for their upcoming program. To reinforce the life lesson that hard work often results in higher achievement, report homework completion separately from academic performance and ask the student to note the correlations: higher completion rate yields higher performance, lower completion rate yields lower performance.

Also note that sometimes we get students who do little or no homework, yet they perform among the highest in the class. There is no cheating here; the students have after-school responsibilities that are simply more urgent: Taking care of aging parents or younger siblings, working after school in order to help the family pay for food and rent, or getting extra assistance in another course. When such a mismatch happens, we have to question the value of students doing those homework assignments: Did they really matter to students’ success, or were they merely busy work, making school about compliance, not learning?

Mathews, in his 2021 Post column on the subject, quotes Wakefield High School teachers’ criticism: [T]he Spring 2020 virtual learning experiment during the [coronavirus] pandemic taught most of us that students do not, will not, complete work if it is not for a grade,” and he repeats the statement in his April 3, 2022, update of the controversial topic. But let’s consider the spring of 2020 when schools first closed at the start of the coronavirus pandemic. Remember the panic we were feeling? We were in free fall, wondering which end was up. Students were navigating the loss of normalcy, removal of expected rituals and experiences, fears over others seeing their home lives via Zoom, inappropriate learning conditions at home, caring for parents and grandparents, increased opioid and alcohol use in self or family, wild mood swings, dramatic changes in sleep, isolation/loneliness, going through puberty, limited access to technology/resources/food, jobless parents due to economic downturn, transportation challenges, limited skills in executive function, depression/anxiety, and were dealing with increasing biases, racism, and political hostilities.

On top of this, Arlington County educators and other teachers around the nation were on a steep learning curve, barely ahead of their students on how to make virtual instruction work. Many of us were not very effective at it; we didn’t have the tools and know-how to make learning engaging via the camera lens in spring 2020. It’s a credit to teachers and students that everyone did as well as they did. Using that time of angst with all that was happening on both sides of the camera as conclusive proof that students will only do homework when it is graded, however, doesn’t make sense: It’s a flawed understanding of proper research practices to make such a claim.

In that same April 3, 2022 update, Mathews says that providing feedback on homework, not grades is a, “a lovely image, but … is at odds with modern adolescence. The distractions of teenage life are at war with the notion that students will do better if teachers remove deadlines.” Actually, none of the standards-based learning advocates, as Mathews cited, including Joe Feldman, Emily Rickema, and Ken O’Connor, advocates for removing deadlines. Deadlines still matter, and students are taught diligently how to meet them. Punitive and distorted grade reports, however, are not the way to teach it.

Second, let’s do a deeper dive into what we know about today’s adolescents before we make such generalizations based on what a few teachers say. Adolescents do respond well to classrooms of agency, developmentally appropriate instruction, complex, demanding instruction, and hope. This means we require students to do the heavy lifting to analyze their practice work against standards of excellence and use that knowledge to inform next steps in learning while being assured that these assignments are only progress checks, not the ultimate judgment of competence. When early attempts at mastery are not used against them, and accountability comes in the form of actually learning content, adolescents flourish. No research in our profession concludes that knowingly falsifying grade reports is an effective way to help students mature and deal with the distractions of teenage life.

Let’s implement the practices that lead to student success. Coercive efforts such as counting homework completion and timeliness in an academic grade are about control, not learning or student maturation. Work completion and timeliness are deeply important virtues, of course, but conflating them with academic performance provides a false sense that students are learning and maturing. Homework completion should count 100 percent, and timeliness of assignment submissions should count 100 percent. Yes, quote me correctly, both should count 100 percent — of their own columns on the report card. They should count 0 percent, however, of the report of what students know about mitosis or coding in Python.

Accountability can be defined as entering mutual ethos with one another: I’m looking out for your success as much as you are looking out for mine. As teachers, that means we come prepared to teach diverse students substantive content and skills, and we hold ourselves accountable to powerful ethics as professionals. We study the role of homework in student learning, and we don’t undermine its positive effects by conflating what should be practice with high stakes, final designations of competence. In this, our students are well served.

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