|Yoda by Orange_Beard CC-BY|
I understand the desire to reward effort. We want to be supportive of kids and coach them along. Work ethic is something we value. I also advocate for embracing subjectivity in grading. And yet, I think we are making a real mistake in including effort in the mix.
I can think of numerous times in the classroom where I had a student tell me that they should get an "A" on a project because they tried really hard. From the demonstration of learning I saw (i.e. poor quality work), I usually disagreed on both counts of trying hard and earning an A. As I think about those times now, what I realize is that we is that we had a major communication issue: We had no common definition of "trying hard." To a teen, procrastinating until 1 a.m. and then staying up the rest of the night to complete a project that had a month long timeline represented a diligent work ethic. Furthermore, they wanted that recognized by the grade---not the content of the actual project. I saw things differently. I didn't think waiting until the last possible moment and getting no sleep represented a disciplined approach to one's work. And while I might not have directly given a grade for that, the low quality work that resulted from such an ethic was reflected in the score.
There are relatively simple fixes for something like this. More specific communication and agreement about what the grade for learning represents, as well as a separate score for work ethic, would be a good start. Believe it or not, I have seen a decent attempt at a rubric for work completion. As long as you don't mix the scores during reporting, it's all good.
But this doesn't solve the "pity grade" issue---the one created when teachers are the ones who want to trade credit for trying as a replacement for meeting standards. If you have students who are eligible for modified grades (SPED, G/T), then you have some options. This doesn't help in the area of science, however, as there is no such thing as an exception for that subject area. According to the feds, everyone can learn grade level science. I don't know that I have a good answer for the kid who doesn't qualify for special services of any sort, stays engaged in class, comes in for extra help, gets tutoring---and still can't meet the standards. The sad fact is that "trying" does not equal "learning." I'll bet none of us wants to depend on a physician who got through med school by trying hard. If you're sick, you want the most knowledgeable person about treatment that you can find. So what do we do with kids who "try hard" according to both their and our measures?
- Report progress whenever possible. Maybe the kid isn't at standard yet, but capture and share whatever growth you can.
- Report work ethic---not as part of the grade, but as one of your observations of the student.
I used to tell my students that my classroom was a place where equal meant that everyone had to get to the same minimum point (the standards), but fair was up to the individual. There were trying times for all of us along the way, but perhaps there will be better solutions in the future.