Standards-Based Grading, Pt. 3: What to do about homework

One of the aspects of standards-based grading that seems to engender the most resistance from teachers is the idea of not grading homework. I get both sides of this debate, and, honestly, I’m splitting the difference, at least for now.board-928381_960_720

The case for not grading day-to-day homework is that, when we do, we end up rewarding diligence and direction-following rather than measuring achievement. If one student bombs every test but turns in all the homework, participates in class, and is generally a good student and another student does beautifully on assessments but never turns in any homework, they might both get a C (or a B, depending on what sort of school you teach in!), but that grade means very different things. The assessments, a standards-based grader would argue, tell you more about what the student can actually do.

This makes a lot of sense to me. In particular, it provides a better answer for the complaint we have all heard after grades go out, “but I tried really hard!” It can feel very difficult to give a low grade to a student who really has been trying her best and doing all the appropriate things without (yet) finding success. Untangling effort/attitude from results/learning makes that easier to do, and I think that’s important. We need to find a way to say, “You are doing what you are supposed to do, and I am not disappointed in you” at the same time as we say, “the things you’ve tried haven’t worked yet. You have not acquired this skill/knowledge, and you need to keep trying,” and we need to find much better ways of helping students sit with those two truths.

At the same time, students do need to do homework, and this brings me to the piece with which I struggle. A standards-based purist would say that it’s not actually our job to “make” the students do homework, that they should take ownership of that themselves and that, if they make the wrong choices, they will eventually learn from the consequences. In theory, I agree with part of this. I take a similar approach, for example, with study guides for tests:  I distribute them but do not require students to fill them out, turn them in, or even look at them. If they don’t, no one suffers but themselves, and they figure that out pretty quickly. I don’t think that approach quite works for homework in general, though, for two reasons.4327283594_01b5495eee_b

One reason is specific to the humanities. Most of the early standards-based adopters I know are science or math teachers, and that flavors the approach. In science or math, homework tends to be practice–problems–and it makes sense to say that, if a student doesn’t need the practice, she can decide to skip it. In the humanities, however, homework is most often preparation–reading in a textbook, novel, or primary source–that lays the groundwork for the following class. If a student doesn’t read before a class discussion, not only will she learn less from it, but it’s bad for the class as a whole:  she either doesn’t participate, in which case somebody else ends up doing all the work, or she tries to ‘wing it,’ leading to the sort of vapid discussion we’ve all suffered through at one time or another. And because it’s usually obvious that someone hasn’t done the reading, the problem tends to grow over time, as other students decide not to read, either, unless the teacher does something fast.

I’m living proof of this. I graduated from what is arguably one of the best high schools in the country having virtually never read a book from cover to cover. It wasn’t that I wanted to be a bad student–quite the opposite, in fact. And it wasn’t that I wasn’t interested in the books;  I sometimes wished I had time to read the rest. But I felt at the time that there was no way I could possibly finish all my homework, and I prioritized the written homework that had to be handed in. For English and history classes, I sampled a few pages before class, commented on them right at the start of discussion, and then allowed the discussion to carry me from there. Exeter did a fantastic job of teaching me to argue, write, and, ironically, do close readings, but in retrospect I wonder how much more it would have stretched me if I had made it all the way through those books. Now, as a teacher, I’m certain this was obvious to my teachers, but I graduated with absolutely no awareness that not actually reading the books was hurting either my grade or my learning. That’s a problem.

My second reason for skepticism about not grading homework is that, sometimes, I think homework skills should, in fact, be included in our learning goals. I mostly teach 9th graders, and so much of what I’m teaching is basic survival skills:  what does it look like to be a good student? what do teachers expect from you? how do you, personally, learn best? (and, having started my career teaching college sophomores, I’m not sure we ever really stop teaching these things!)

We often treat these skills–doing the work, focus, self-advocacy, attitude, engagement, participation–as quasi-moral attributes. “She’s just not doing the work,” we say, and that’s a cast iron reason for a failing grade–out the window goes any sympathy we might have had. Sometimes–once or twice in any given year–I get a student who really isn’t even trying to try. She doesn’t want to be there, or she’s simply so interested in boys or sports or something else that’s not my class that I don’t have a prayer of teaching her. But when I have conversations with students after a failed test or a colossally blown paper deadline, it becomes clearer and clearer to me that many students don’t actually know what “doing the work” looks like. Kids who have had that education somewhere along the way know that scrawling down a few lines in a notebook after reading the night’s assignment isn’t what I meant by taking notes, that studying for a test has to start the week before, that they should look ahead at the syllabus to see what the next step in the project will be. Lots of kids don’t, and they feel as though they’re working hard when their efforts are not even close to what I expect of them. That’s an education gap, not a moral failure.

I am therefore more and more convinced that we need to very explicitly teach those skills, from how to take notes to how to ask for help. It’s all very well to say the students will learn from their mistakes, but, unless we’ve first modeled ways to do well and then given them freedom to try it out, they will simply, predictably, try, fail, and get frustrated. There are lots of ways to enforce good practices, of course, but, at least in independent schools, grades are the main way we have to offer incentives and to show what we value. It is harder to teach these lessons without that tool, and they are hard enough to teach anyway.

All that said, here’s my compromise.  I have completely separated effort and achievement grades, so that the one no longer masks the other. I draw my overall semester grade primarily from those standards that measure achievement. But I also have a standard I call “ownership of learning” that measures those softer skills. In this, I include basics like preparing for class, finishing long-term projects on time without nagging, and staying focused in class, but I try to take it beyond basic compliance to help students think about their own learning in a more active way. Mastery in this category requires monitoring one’s own strengths and weaknesses and asking for help when necessary, showing awareness of how one works best and adopting practices that play to those strengths, and collaborating with others in a sophisticated way. That means that the academically strong kid who never asks for help because she thinks she can figure it all out gets docked a little on that one. I’m trying to teach skills they will need later in life,not just to reward the “good kids.”

This isn’t a philosophically pure solution, but it’s one I feel very comfortable with, at least for now.




About wordsarestrong

I teach history at an independent school in California.
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One Response to Standards-Based Grading, Pt. 3: What to do about homework

  1. Pingback: Standards-Based Grading, Pt. 4: from standards to grades | wordsarestrong

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