13 March 2007

When Grades Attack

Pop Quiz: Suppose you are a student who has a 4.5 GPA (yes, there are some schools which go above a 4.0). You know that you have a big project due in your biology class on a certain day and the teacher has told you that she accepts no late work. On the day the project is due, you are out of town on an approved school trip. What should you do?

A. Turn in the project late. After all, your absence is excused so the teacher won't take off any points.
B. Send the project to school with a friend or have a parent drop it off so it's on time.
C. Give the project to your teacher early. That way, you know it's all taken care of---your mind can rest easy during your trip.
D. Turn in the project late. Sue the school when you receive no credit for the work.

If you're a student at Sissonville High School, apparently the answer is "D."

This case has a variety of interesting points for me. I understand why teachers have a no late work policy (I used to be one of them); but it is also unreasonable to punish a student with grades. Did the kid make the wrong choice? Sure. Did the kid complete a quality project? Apparently, she did. Give her the grade and then assign a consequence separately.

Bill McGinley, legal counsel for the West Virginia Education Association, said the union would be watching the lawsuit closely.

"We're very interested in this," he said. "Especially in the notion of protecting the integrity of teacher's grading, as well as student responsibility.

I hope to find a way to learn about the outcome of this story. It's one of those which, to me, doesn't have a clear winner: both parties are out of order in one way or another. Will they be laughed out of court? Will things be taken seriously and policy be shaped? In the grand scheme of things, a leaf project is not as big of a deal as the family of this student is making it to be. If things truly get to the point of litigation, my hunch is that the court will find in favour of the school district because no true harm was done to the child's academic record. It's not like the kid can't get into college now. But I hope the teacher is thinking carefully about grading practices, too...and what will be in place for next year's leaf project.

Update: If you are interested in the outcome of this saga, you can read all about it here.


IB a Math Teacher said...

What would your punishment be? I can't think of anything we can do to "punish" a kid that will be meaningful besides giving a zero.

Suppose the teacher did punish the kid some other way. I don't see why the parent wouldn't sue for that either.

No lunch? Lawsuit. No going out for recess? Lawsuit.

I tell my kids that they have to eat all the vegetables or they won't get any dessert. Why can't the punishment be "no dessert"?

Laura said...

If the teacher's policy is stated in the legally binding syllabus and the parents signed the booger, kid ain't got a leg to stand on.

It wasn't long ago I advocated late grades. I just got rid of them in my honors class, and from what I've seen, I'd say my students are more responsible for it.

The Science Goddess said...

I do think that work habits should be a part of the evaluation process---but they should either be reported as a separate piece from the student's academic learning; or, if a single grade must be assigned, then as a small part of the grade. What the teacher has done in this case has made work habits the entire grade. If that's going to be the case, then why should students make any effort to have a quality project?

IB a Math Teacher said...

How did the teacher make work habits the "entire grade"? She didn't grade the projects that were turned in on time? I see nothing wrong with what she did. What would happen if he turned in the project on the last day of school? What about if the kid *really* wanted to spend time on it, did it over the summer, and gave it to the teacher in the fall? Would you expect her to go back and change the grade? Do we now expect teachers to individually teach 150 kids a day?

In my last post on my own blog, I wrote about one of our counselors who routinely sends kids down to me to ask if I can change a previous quarters grade if the kid turns some late work in...essentially, any quarter credit in his mind could be changed during any quarter.

The Science Goddess said...

The teacher didn't grade the kid on learning at all. The student's grade was based entirely on the fact that she turned it in late...not what she turned in nor the quality.

There are going to be some timelines during a school year. Quarters, trimesters, semesters are benchmark points and both students and teachers have to live within those bounds.

What the real issue here is grading what we value. If a kid gets no credit for doing a project and handing it in a day late---then the message is that we only value the work habit...not the learning. Both are important, but they don't have to share the same grade.

In the grown-up world, when we are late with something (mortgage payment, picking up kid from piano, scheduling health check-ups) there are penalties, but rarely do they discount the entire effort we've made. Kids should have consequences, too, but they should be reasonable.

Mike said...

Lawsuit? Well, let's review the facts of this case. The teacher made clear that late work would not be accepted. Implied in this is that any student turning in late work would receive no credit for that work. Is this unusual? Cruel? Unreasonable?
No. This is standard and usual practice in schools across the nation (let's not even get into what other nations, such as Japan, might have to say about not living up to one's academic obligations).

Does the student have standing to sue in this case? For a tort--civil suit--to prevail, the person bringing the suit must have standing--a direct relation to the issue at hand, and must be able to show actual, as opposed to hypothetical injury. Is there any such injury here? No. At worst, this is a momentary blip in the student's average in one class. What's the assertion here? That the student has a Fourth Amendment property right in a specific grade? That their Eighth Amendment right against cruel or unusual punishment has been violated? For a court to even consider allowing such a suit to proceed would be an abuse of the system and would rightfully open the law to derision.

One might reasonably inquire as to why the student didn't simply hand in the project a day early, or why they didn't actually speak to the teacher to make a mutually satisfactory arrangement prior to the due date. Both of these options were open to the student.

Of course, it would, in this case, obviously be too much to ask that the parents simply tell their tender offspring to suck it up and get their work in on time next time. In that way, they might actually learn about the benefits of responsibility rather than how to waste huge amounts of time and money and about how to make a mockery of the law.

IB a Math Teacher said...

"There are going to be some timelines during a school year. Quarters, trimesters, semesters are benchmark points and both students and teachers have to live within those bounds."

This is precisely my point. Suppose the project was due the last day of the quarter, but turned it in a day late. Is that a too bad, so sad situation, or not?

It sounds to me as if you want the kid to be somewhat responsible for the tardiness (ten percent a day?), but I'm not sure why this would not result in a lawsuit as well, after all, ten percent of the one assignment wasn't graded on effort at all.

I have a hard enough time keeping up with work from kids who miss days (I have plenty). My "in box" on any given day has four or five assignments, so taking late work from kids who were absent with valid excuses is a royal pain. If I gave the kids the option of turning in work late, even with a penalty, my life would be exponentially worse!

The Science Goddess said...

A few percent a day seems reasonable to me. One hundred percent in a day does not. Even 10% still gives the kid a consequence while still acknowledging their learning.

While I agree that the lawsuit angle is more than a bit over the top, there still needs to be some thinking about philosophy. Just because a teacher publishes a syllabus doesn't mean that it contains good practices.

Anonymous said...

Um, the kid didn't get NO credit for the assignment. The teacher was within his (her?...sorry, it's been a while since I read the article, so I don't remember) rights to assign a zero, but changed his mind and gave the kid half-credit.

The Science Goddess said...

So, I guess that means there wasn't anything wrong with the grading policy? Makes you wonder if the teacher was starting to realize her practices might not be so sound even if the syllabus was legal.

Hugh O'Donnell said...

Truth is, the student got shafted by every institution in the chain, from the classroom to the courthouse.

The heart of the matter is this: West Virginia has education standards -- things kids are supposed to know and be able to do in various core subjects. For grades to mean anything at all, they need to reflect, for the benefit of all "stakeholders," what the kid knows and can do relevant to these standards.

When a teacher assigns a numerical or letter grade as a punishment instead of an evaluation of standards, the teacher has not taught "responsibility," but has, in fact, modeled the opposite, irresponsibility. The teacher has abandoned their duty to educate by failing to give honest feedback on the project and representing that same honest evaluation in the child's grade.

This child wasn't asking for a grade change, because the assigned grade wasn't a grade at all. Did it reflect the teacher's evaluation of the project according to state standards? No, it did not. So what did it indicate? Hard to tell, right, unless you have the teacher's grading guidelines.

I'm a retired teacher (2003) and current board of ed member in Oregon. Believe me, when Ms. Schultz claims a victory for all teachers, she's not talking for me. Ms. Schultz, the principal, the superintendent, the board, the school lawyer, and the judge (who apparently in telling everyone what the business of schooling is has supplanted the state legislature) need to do some reading in the field of classroom assessment and grading linked to standards, or as some of us call it, grading for achievement.

I started out the same way as most teachers do these days, adopting without criticism the ways of the "veteran" teachers. But, thank goodness, a lot of the veterans of today are not passing along the irrational and controlling aspects of classroom assessment to the next generation. That teachers should be the sole arbiters of grades is absurd. That grades should be used as behavioral interventions or punishments is inexcusable in this era of educational standards and the prevailing philosophy that we promote the success of all students, not sort them according to the normal curve.

Thanks for the opportunity to comment. This is a very civil group.

Hugh O'Donnell
Hillsboro, OR

The Science Goddess said...


I can't think of anything else to add other than "Well said!" We have a fairly progressive school board in this district, but even then, I'm not sure they're ready to seriously revisit their policy on grading (even if standards-based is already becoming the norm at elementary). I wish we had someone like you representing our community.

Ken O'Connor said...

I would like to support Hugh - if grades are going to have any meaning they have to be pure measures of academic achievement and not be distorted down - or up - by behaviors. I am an independent consultant who works for school districts across North America and I will be using this case in my workshops as an example of what teachers, principals, school districts, state legislatures and judges should NOT do.