More Thoughts on Feedback, Grades, and Late Work

My good friend and stellar colleague, Ken Lindblom, posted Should Students’ Grades Be Lowered for Lateness?, spurring a series of Tweets about grading late work.

Ken’s thoughtful post focuses on these foundational ideas:

As an educator, I try to base my decisions on a principle of authenticity. In other words, I try to make my decisions more on real-world norms than traditional school norms. I try to ensure that I am preparing students for the world beyond school, not for school. As a result, I try to make sure that the ways in which I assess students’ work is similar to the ways in which they would be assessed in a professional situation.

There are times when a professional can absolutely not be late: grant applications, proposals for conferences/speaking, . . . I’m not sure I can come up with a third example to make a series.

But adults can be late with almost anything else: publication deadlines, job evaluations, doctor’s appointments, taxes–even most bills have a grace period.

Here I want to tease out a few ideas related to feedback on student work (artifacts of learning), grades, and late work.

Like Ken’s concern for authenticity, I tend to work from a personal and professional aversion to hypocrisy based on 18 years teaching English in a rural South Carolina public high school and then 14-plus years in a selective liberal arts university, also in SC.

I have been practicing and refining de-grading and de-testing practices for over thirty years. Let me emphasize, since I have been challenged before, I have implemented—and thus currently advocate for—de-grading and de-testing in many school contexts, including public schools (not just at the university level).

So my path to rejecting grades and tests has many stages and elements. First, I had to confront that calculating grades bound only to averages often distorts grades unfairly for students. Mean, median, and mode are all credible ways to analyze data, and among them, in formal schooling, the mean (average) is both the norm and often the weakest.

I show students this simple example; a series of grades: 10, 10, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 85, 100, 100 = 730.

The average is 73, which most teachers would assign, but the mode is 85, and if we note these grades are sequential and cumulative (10 as the first grade in terms of time, and 100 the last grade), a legitimate grade assignment would be the 100.

In other words, using the same data, a teacher could assign 73, 85, or 100 to this student, and all can be justified statistically.

My conclusion has been this greatly challenges the value of assigning grades because those who control the rules, control reality.

Thus, I do not assign grades to any student artifacts of learning (and I do not give traditional tests). Instead I offer feedback that supports students as they revise and resubmit those artifacts.

However, I cannot refuse to assign students grades for courses. Therefore, another distinction I have come to appreciate is the difference between grading an assignment and determining a grade for a grading period or course.

Therein lies my approach to late work, but first, let’s consider adult hypocrisy.

In my 30-plus years as an educator at nearly every level possible, I witness daily teachers and professors who fail to meet deadlines (regularly); talk, do other things (grade papers), stare at their computers/smart phones, etc., during meetings; and behave in a number of ways that they do not tolerate by students in their classes, behaviors that negatively impact students grades.

I also drive daily with adult motorists who exceed the speed limit without any punishment—as most of us have come to realize a grace zone of staying less than ten mph over that limit. In other words, the real world of rules is much fuzzier than the rules of formal schooling.

These are the behaviors I see when I am confronted with student late work.

About late work, then, I have some clear policies. First, I would never change a grade assigned to an artifact of learning that distorts the actual quality of that artifact. A “B” essay is a “B” essay regardless of when it is submitted.

As an educator, my primary concern is student learning, and I suffer no delusions that when that happens is more important than if it happens. I also ascribed to Rick Wormeli’s dictum that fair isn’t always equal; thus, I do not allow very narrow expectations that I treat all students exactly the same override that I am there to serve each student as well as all students.

Next, I always record “lateness” and then consider that when I assign a grade for a grading period or course. If a student has one or two assignments late (clearly an outlier), I may ignore that when determining the grading period/course grade, but if there is a pattern of lateness, then the grading period/course grade must reflect this.

In other words, I believe we must separate artifact quality (the basis of grading period or course grades) from grading period/course grades.

Feedback and grades on artifacts of learning send students clear messages about what they produce (their learning), and then grading period/course grades send a message about the totality of their accomplishments as students.

So if we return to Ken’s context, we can imagine a manager telling a habitually late worker: “Your work here is excellent, but if you aren’t here on time, we will have to let you go.”

Especially in the recent thirty-plus years of standards, educators have fallen prey to standardization, and as a result, we have too often abdicated our professional autonomy and allowed technical norms to supplant our much more important goals and obligations, the human dignity and learning of each child assigned to our care.

And because most people have greater regard for medical doctors than teachers (sigh), I’ll end with an example my major professor offered in my doctoral program.

A patient is admitted to the hospital running a dangerously high temperature. After several days, during all of which the nurses record that patient’s temperature hourly, the doctor comes in, adds those temperatures, calculates the average, and refuses to release the patient, although the current temperature is 98.6.

Right, no medical doctor would allow the norm of averages to override her/his medical authority. And neither should educators.

See Also

Missing Assignments–and the Real World, Nancy Flanagan

The Perils of Late Work and How to Make It Count, Starr Stackstein

It’s Time to Ditch Our Deadlines, Ellen Boucher 

8 comments

  1. Colorado Teacher

    Great post! When the patient’s temperature reaches 98.6 the (or a) goal, standard, or whatever you want to call the “proof” of wellness has been reached. Teaching to a “standard” should mean teaching until as many students as possible get to 100.

  2. howardat58

    And the more we let computers make the final decisions the more we forget that we wrote the rules for the computer to apply, (Unless we had to hand over the whole job to Pearson et al)

  3. tultican

    Grading is such a difficult subject. I have moved to toward degrade and detest but not all the way. In math classes I give a weekly homework quiz with four homework problems directly from their assignments and they use their work to do the quiz. I collect the homework but do not grade it. I only collect it because the students like turning it in with their homework quizzes. The nature of my physics classes are quite different so I use a different grading style. In all my classes I enter no grades lower than 40% and that is for no work at all. I do everything I can to make passing grades and good grades possible. I try to never use grades as a motivating factor.

  4. Amy Fan

    As a high school senior, I can agree with this. School can often become a series of deadlines back to back, and we feel like have little say in the process

    I can also say the Law of Averages can backfire in another way– some people start a cycle off well (when it’s mostly completion grades and straightforward assignments), fail the tests, and still end up with a good grade in the class.

  5. Rebecca deCoca

    Love this! My only thought is, if a student is habitually late with assignments (I’ve known teachers who won’t even accept the work at all), can you try to find out why? Is it because they work part time or do too many activities or have to babysit younger siblings? If so, can they cut down on activities or learn time-management strategies or, if the situation can’t be ameliorated, be given leeway? Do the tasks seem too overwhelming and the student doesn’t know how to break them down into manageable chunks, in which case they could be taught how to do that? Are they ADD and don’t take medicine or don’t want to because of side effects (and I think the medicine is usually prescribed in too big of doses), and if so can they learn cognitive strategies to help them overcome this? Are they depressed because their grandmother died recently and would counseling be helpful? It seems to me we have a responsibility at the K-12 level to try to find these things out and intervene if possible so that when they get to post-secondary or a career they’ll know coping strategies.

  6. Clara Maxcy (Cleargrace)

    It is important to me to separate the quality of work (so that I can see learning) from the behavior/responsibility. I also agree we have got to quit averaging work- we don’t average the grades we get for any test we pass- driving, certifications, etc. I enjoyed your examples. I agree that we are teaching individuals! It’s harder to do, but infinitely more satisfying.

  7. Wendy

    Fascinating! I’m teaching a reading intervention course at the middle school level. I’m expected to use progress towards AR goals as a significant part of student grades. I am trying to find work-arounds for this–starting with making this 35% of their grade instead of 100%. But where does the rest of the course grade come from? I could sit down right now and give each of my 90 students an overall grade based on how hard they are working, which looks very different for each reader. (In some cases, this would align perfectly with their AR percentage. In other cases, not so much.) However, my grades have to be quantifiable in a way that makes sense to parents and admin. Lots to think about.

    In my previous area of specialty as an ELD teacher, I refused to grade down for late work. Why should I care WHEN a student learned something? I just wanted them to learn it!

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