Why I Scale (and Curve) My Grades

I was fortunate enough to work in my district’s assessment office for over two years. I worked with teachers and other district administrators to create all of the district-wide exams for English, their electives, and some CTE (Career and Technical Education) courses. As I work for one of the ten largest districts in the country, this was a major undertaking.

In this position, I was privy to some unique perspective on how the scaling process works not only at a district level, but also for large testing companies like College Board and ACT. It changed my perspective regarding curves and scales for individual assessments and overall course grades as a whole.

This experience came after a more negative experience early in my teaching career, where I wound up losing a position because of, among other issues, my course grades. I find that the teachers I work with face a major obstacle with grades. A large number of students don’t do what they’re expected to do. They don’t do homework. They don’t do class work. They don’t turn in work they actually take the time to do. They don’t study for tests. Or, they study for tests but because they didn’t do the other important work, they fail anyway. If you take a look at many teachers’ raw grade book scores for any individual assignments, there are an alarming number of failing grades.

scales oops

Now, teachers can lament and rend their garments all they like about how lazy students (and/or parents, etc.) are and how, “If (insert name here) would just do what s/he’s supposed to, they would be passing!” But at some point, there is a reality game to play. The reality is that in any given class, there is a spectrum of students. There always has been, and there always will be. Even in honors or AP classes, there is a spectrum. Some of it has to do with student effort, but some of it is related to innate ability/talent/intellect, what-have-you. Let me tell you, I worked my behind off in my college computer programming class (why I had to take it to get certified for middle school math is beyond me, but that is neither here nor there). I did every assignment. I went to every class. I went to office hours. I asked questions. I worked HARD. And I barely – BARELY – made a “C.” There were assignments and assessments I failed. Not because I was lazy, but because my brain just did not work that way. It wasn’t something for which I had a natural affinity. Anyway, the point is that in any class, there is a spectrum of students. And I can’t (nor should I, in my opinion) make ten different ability versions of a quiz or test so that I can accurately assess every single student where they are in that moment. Every student takes the same test. Maybe I have 2 or 3 versions, but it’s of the same test – same level, rigor, etc. And I know – heck, I’ll even use the word “expect” – there to be failures. Because my tests are well-made. I follow a 30/40/30 or 25/50/25 rule for my tests in terms of easy/medium/difficult questions. I need to have enough questions to differentiate my “D” students from my “F” students. I need to have enough questions to differentiate my “B” students from my “A” students. I know student Q over there isn’t going to get an “A.” I know that because he’s on the lower end of my spectrum. But I’m not entirely sure if he’s a “D” or an “F” student, so that’s where my 25-30% of easy questions come in. I know student S is going to ace the easy and medium questions, but I’m not sure if student S is an “A” or a “B” student, so that’s where my 25-30% of hard questions come in.

scales question distribution

The problem is, when you have a class that has a really wide, and heavily skewed spectrum, you end up doing a lot of “D”/”F” differentiation and not a lot of “A”/”B” differentiation. Which makes your test scores look like crap. And if that’s the case for all of your assignments and assessments, then your class averages look like crap.

So instead of grading in a CRT (criterion-referenced test) system, which looks at raw scores as the basis for grades, I went to a more NRT (norm-referenced test) system, which scales – or in some cases curves – scores to assign grades. This is what large districts like my own do, as well as major national testing companies like the College Board and ACT. There’s a reason they convert raw scores to scale scores. There’s a reason their national averages work out to a bell curve. They recognize and base their scoring on the fact that there is a spectrum of students who take their tests.

scales bell curve

Now, I’m not suggesting that we don’t let students fail. I’m not suggesting what some schools or even entire districts mandate (not mine, thankfully…yet), which are things like having minimum grades of 50% or even 55% rather than zero’s in a gradebook. I see the argument behind that, but…frankly, that’s a topic for a different entry. I’m not suggesting that a student who answers 2 questions right out of 25 end up with an A or a B. However, I am saying that scaling scores is a reasonable way to norm assessment, assignment, and entire class grades so that a teacher doesn’t find him/herself at the end of the quarter with 15 F’s and 10 B’s and C’s and no A’s. I’ve been on the receiving end of that discussion with admin and believe me, it wasn’t pretty. Scaling grades isn’t grade inflation, when it’s done appropriately. Here is how a scaling process might work.

Let’s say, for time’s sake, that my class has 10 students. I know, right? Heaven. But again, this is for time’s purpose, not reality. I give a test to a low-performing class and this is my raw score data:

Student Raw % Score Raw letter grade
A 15 F
B 20 F
C 30 F
D 60 D
E 75 C
F 25 F
G 80 B
H 45 F
I 55 F
J 35 F

Something really important to remember in the scaling process is that I do NOT discard my raw data. This class needs a LOT of remediation and further instruction on this topic. I would NOT want to move on to the next concept before doing some serious re-teaching. The average for this assessment is only a 44%. That is TERRIBLE. Something went horribly wrong.

scales terribly wrong

Here is where I have a decision to make. I can choose to curve my scores OR I can choose to scale them. Curving is different from scaling. Curving is adding points to raw scores, which results in a change to the overall average score. This is probably more common than scaling because lots of teachers already do it. “Oh, man, everyone missed question 7. Gee, now that I look at it, I can see that question 7 really was kind of vague. It really wasn’t a great question. I’m going to throw it out.” When you throw out/don’t count a question, you’re simply adding the same number of points to everyone’s raw score. That’s a curve. Or, when you say, “Hey, this average was only a 44% I want the average to be 70%. That means I have to add 26 percentage points to everyone’s score.” Or, you look at the highest score and if it isn’t an A, you add however many points that person needs to move up to an A to everyone’s score. That’s a curve. That’s how we get the expression “blow the curve.” When everyone else does terribly but one person scores an A, it can negate the need for a curve. Using curves is pretty easy and accomplishes something similar to a scale, which is it saves your grade book and students’ overall averages.

Now, if I wanted to scale these scores, what I would do is decide what I wanted my normed curve to look like, do I want a bell curve? Do I want a skewed curve? If so, do I want to skew low or high? I am pretty anal about this and really love the beauty and symmetry of the bell curve, so I usually scale my scores to resemble a bell curve. You can also choose to scale the scores to some other norm. For example, in my district, the semester exam scales were created to match the norm curve of student course grades. If 15% of students earned an A, 20% earned a B, 45% earned a C, 5% of students earned a D, and 15% of students earned an F, then that is what the scale would reflect. Or try to come close to, anyway.

So let’s scale my quiz scores to match a bell curve. Without going into some higher-level statistics, the basic breakdown of the bell curve says the majority of scores fall in the middle (C), some of the scores fall on either side of that – an equal amount – as B’s and D’s, and the smallest amount of scores fall outside of those – again, an equal amount – as A’s and F’s.

With only 10 students, our bell curve might look something like this:

scales bell curve 2

This is what the scale scores look like from the original table:

Student Raw % Score Raw letter grade Scale score
A 15 F F
B 20 F D
C 30 F C
D 60 D B
E 75 C B
F 25 F D
G 80 B A
H 45 F C
I 55 F C
J 35 F C

Their scale score has nothing (or very little) to do with their raw score and everything to do with the normed curve and their performance compared to their peers. This preserves the spectrum of students in the class without inflating grades or hurting teachers’ grade books.

When scaling is used in conjunction with curving, it can be effective in maintaining a “normed” or “balanced” grade book. If teachers discount raw score information, though, or curve blindly just to get to a “nice average” for an assessment, this isn’t best practice. Without looking at the assessments, teachers aren’t able to become aware of flaws or bias in individual items or student weaknesses and areas in need of intervention. Again, I wouldn’t intend to just move on from this assessment. I would intend to reteach and reassess it until those raw “F” students were able to score raw “C’s”. Am I going to move Student A? Maybe from a raw “F” to a raw “D,” but probably not much more than that. Could I get my raw “C” to a raw “B” and/or my raw “B” to a raw “A”? Probably. I would hope so. But, I don’t want the original assessment to kill my grade book or students’ overall averages, so using a scale is helpful and appropriate. Am I going to achieve my goals every time? Nope. That’s not reality. But the point is that would be my intention, and that’s what matters. I could throw the whole assessment out, but what message am I sending to students then? Did it even matter in their eyes if the grade doesn’t count? Students struggle (often, at least in my experience) to see the value in an assignment that doesn’t get a grade, and then you run into motivation issues. But again, another topic for another entry.

Once I started using curves and scales responsibly, my grade book looked great. I don’t have tons of A’s and I don’t have kids who clearly either didn’t understand a concept or were ridiculously lazy getting A’s, both of which would indicate indiscriminate grade inflation. What I do have, however, is evidence for my administrators that I reflect thoroughly on my grading process and the assessments themselves.

Why I Decided to Teach Certain Math Skills in My English Classes

As the third quarter comes to an end for many schools, I wanted to take the time to share why I, as an English teacher, spent time showing my students a very specific math skill: calculating GPA. I did this when I was teaching 9th & 10th grade English, although I also did a modified version of it this year with my 7th grade math students. However, middle school transcripts aren’t as focused on GPA – at least not in my district – so it depends on your circumstances whether or not you’d want to do this as a middle school teacher.

GPA

As a non-math content area teacher, I had to really weigh the pros and cons of taking an entire class period to go over a math skill. All our curriculums are over-packed. We don’t have days to “waste.” Was I ready to give up a day of curriculum to teach a skill that wasn’t directly related to my own curriculum and standards? Well, honestly, the first time I did this, I hadn’t intended to take an entire class period. My goal was to put up the grade calculation chart to show my students how their 3 grades (quarter 3, quarter 4, and final exam) worked together to get their final semester grade. That was only supposed to take maybe 10-15 minutes. I knew I could spare that. I knew I had to. But, as the conversation took a turn to GPA and how that is calculated and how “bad” one grade can be for a GPA, it didn’t take long to figure out that my students had zero idea how to calculate their own GPA.

deer in headlights

This was a serious problem since I worked with freshman. Those of you who work with underclassmen are well aware of the thought process these students have. So many of them don’t think their grades matter. They don’t realize the damage a bad grade in 9th or 10th grade can do to a GPA. They don’t understand that they will spend the rest of their high school career fighting to repair a GPA that has been devastated by a “C” or, heaven forbid, a “D.” Let’s not even talk about the “F”s. When I tried to quickly explain the GPA calculations, my students immediately took an interest. They demanded I slow down so they could take notes. Seriously, I had students who rarely paid any attention to a single word I said and when I started talking about their GPA they were like, “Woah, woah, woah, Miss! Slow down!” They cared about this. What shocked me was not so much that my students didn’t know how a GPA was calculated – after all, it would be unlikely that they would have learned that in middle school, given the emphasis (or lack thereof) placed on GPAs in middle school – it was that their math teachers hadn’t taught them this when they started high school.

GPA 2

I realize now that I shouldn’t have been surprised. As teachers, we assume a heck of a lot of knowledge for our students. We assume they just know things because we know them. We forget how we learned. It doesn’t occur to us to teach things we ourselves know and/or expect our students to know. And I’m not talking about curriculum concepts, I’m talking about this type of stuff: GPA calculation, test-taking techniques , how to bubble a freaking Scantron sheet correctly. So I taught them how to calculate their GPA. The first time, I had to fly by the seat of my pants. I had to guess how much our district weighted honors and AP classes. I let them know that my assumptions could be wrong and they should do their own research to figure out how their specific class load would work out. But the next time, I was prepared. I did my research and found the district’s weighting system and how GPA was calculated. I budgeted a full class period for it, and it paid off. And my students were enthralled and thankful. It honestly changed a lot of perspectives. I know a lot of my students changed their attitudes towards their effort in classes because of this lesson. I know because they told me themselves. I saw some students improve their efforts in my class, and I know other teachers saw improvements in theirs. They might not have known why, but the improvements were there.

GPA 3

You might think that the kids who cared were only the college-bound ones. The kids who knew they had no shot might not care about anything except graduating. Why bother with trying to get “A”s and “B”s when all you need is a 2.0 to graduate? Or maybe they were planning to drop out; why should they care about a GPA as a freshman when they knew in just 2 years they’d be out of school anyway? Well, what I’ve noticed is that students who think they can’t control something often become apathetic towards it. If a student thinks a GPA is some sort of magical number over which they have no control and no influence, they have no reason to devote any time or energy towards caring about it. But, if you show a student – any student – that THEY control this GPA, it changes a lot. Really, this is true about many things for students. They don’t have a lot of control over things. Give them a little bit of control and it empowers them. It engages them. And that’s what this lesson did for my students – all of them, even the low-performing, unmotivated ones. It gave them the knowledge that THEY controlled their GPA. And that changed everything.

GPA 4

How I Use Gains (or Growth) Grading to Foster Confidence in Low-Performing Students

I don’t know about you, but every year I’ve taught, I have students who come to me so defeated that they think the year’s over before it even starts. They’re so far behind in whatever subject it is (Math, English, whatever) that they don’t even want to try because they are convinced they’ll fail. I can’t blame them. If I knew that no matter what I did I was going to see “F” after “F” on every paper I got back, I wouldn’t want to put forth much effort, either. These were the grades they were getting (and would continue to get) on assignments if I graded on accuracy. The problem was that I was teaching and assessing on grade level, even though so many students were woefully below it. My hands were tied somewhat in terms of curriculum. I could do some remediation, but there just wasn’t ever going to be enough time in the day (or year) to make up for year upon year of missing skills. But I had to find a way to motivate them, so I came up with (okay, I’m sure I didn’t come up with it, but I decided to use) growth grading. I gave my students benchmark tests throughout the year (usually once a quarter – sometimes more, sometimes less, depending) and explained how they would be graded.

Baseline test: Graded on effort. I would watch the students as they worked and they would earn an “A” if they were working at 100% the entire time. Grades would go down if they weren’t trying. I would record the raw score of each student, but that wouldn’t factor into the grade itself.

Benchmark test #1: This test was graded on growth. I compared the student’s baseline raw score to this benchmark test’s raw score, and if they improved they would earn an “A” or “B” – the amount of improvement would determine which grade they earned. If their raw scores stayed the same (or within a certain percentage of each other) they would earn a “C”. If their score went down or it was obvious they just weren’t trying, they would earn a “D” or “F,” depending on the severity of the decrease/lack of effort.

Subsequent benchmark tests: These were graded the same way. However, if I had students who were earning raw scores in the “A” range, then if they stayed there, they continued to earn an “A”. I wasn’t going to penalize a student for going from a 95% to a 92%.

Students were so motivated once they learned this! The excitement in their eyes and body language when they saw an “A” on their test was inspiring. Even if they went from a 10% to a 20%, they had earned an “A” because they were making progress. It changed their outlook on their work and education.

Of course, I couldn’t grade every assignment like this, but because of this I also began writing raw scores on student work instead of percentages or letter grades. I found that students who were habitually getting “F” grades would get less discouraged if they saw 3/6 instead of “F” or 50%. For some reason, knowing they got half right was less discouraging than seeing that “F” or percentage. Sometimes, if I noticed a student was making progress, I would note it on their test. Just the other day, I had a student who had worked harder than he had the whole year for a full week. He took his notes, did his class work, paid attention…really tried. On his quiz, he only got 2.5/6, but I went back through his other scores for the year and it was the highest grade he’d earned the entire school year. So rather than put “F” on his paper, I wrote him a note: “This is the highest quiz grade you’ve earned all year! Why? Because you did your work and put in the effort! So impressed!” During the next quiz, he seemed discouraged, so I reminded him how much his hard work had paid off and that perhaps his goal this time should just be to get a 3/6 to show improvement. I could tell that changed his attitude and he worked harder on it than he had been.

Give growth grading a try and see if it changes your students’ motivation and self-concept.

How I Use a Calendar and Long-Term Planning to Improve Student Achievement

My first year of teaching I taught from the book. Every day I’d move on to the next page and at the end of the unit I’d give the test and then move on. I felt like I was living by the seat of my pants. It didn’t go that well.

My second year I realized I had to do a little more planning to be more successful. I started writing my lesson plans out for the week. This was better than the first year, but still not enough to make me feel calm about walking into class every day. My mother used a program called Calendar Creator to plan family stuff and write down important dates, etc. I decided to give it a try. I began planning a month at a time. Lessons, quizzes, tests, homework…everything. I loved it so much I actually began planning out entire quarters – and even semesters at a time.

Other teachers didn’t understand why I did it. They assumed I wasn’t open to shifting the plan if my students demonstrated a need. This wasn’t the case. If something happened, I’d rework things to accommodate my students’ needs. The thing was, that hardly ever happened. The more I planned, the more in tune I was with my students. Because I was planning so far in advance, I was forced to take the time to actually go through the lessons and look at the material, decide on classwork assignments, homework, projects, quizzes, and tests. I began to anticipate where students would struggle and where they would excel. Of course it was a learning curve, but now, a decade into my teaching career, I am to the point where I only have to revise a calendar once or twice a year.

Now I plan by breaks: summer is my time to plan from August through December. Winter break is time for me to plan January through Spring break. Spring break is the time for me to plan through the end of the year. I give students calendars at the start of every month. I email that calendar to parents every month as well, and I post it on my class website. On the calendar is the unit we’re on, the bell work for each day (sometimes very specific, sometimes generic), the class work for the day, and any homework for the day. The quizzes and tests for the month are on there as well.

Jan 2016 calendar

In addition to making me feel more prepared and a like I was a better teacher, it also had some unexpected benefits for my students. It increased their achievement in a few different ways. First of all, they had access to quiz and test dates, so they were more prepared for them and did better on them. Additionally, students who were missing school had access to the work we were doing so they didn’t fall behind. This worked very well for students who had absences planned in advance, too. I would get requests from parents like, “We’re going out of town next week, can you give my student work?” and I would respond that they could just follow the calendar and be pretty much caught up by the time they got back. Parents LOVED that. It also helped with missing work because students could go back and look at what they were supposed to do and turn it in if they were missing it.

Is it a lot of work? Yes. Does it pay off? Yes.

How I Encouraged Productive Participation (aka, How I Made Grade Inflation Defensible)

My third year teaching I encountered something new. I had multiple classes of honors students and, being honors students, many of them thought they could just skate by doing the bare minimum and get straight A’s in my class. Well, I wasn’t about to let that happen, so when they didn’t do what I asked (homework, whatever), they didn’t get good grades. At the end of the semester, I was called into the principal’s office and asked about my grades. I had (what I believe to remember) a relatively normal grade distribution, but I did have students making C’s, D’s, and F’s. My administrators asked me what I was going to do to have more A’s and B’s. I told them I’d give the students many opportunities, but they simply hadn’t done their work and so their grades reflected that. I was told I needed to do something to have more A’s and B’s in my honors classes. You can read between the lines about what went down in that office.

explosion

I actually ended up losing my job over the incident. Well, that probably wasn’t the only reason, but it was definitely one of them. It turns out it was a good thing, though, because it really made me think about my grading. As the years went on, I began to realize that no matter what the students did (or, in most cases, did NOT do), I was always being asked what I was doing to improve their grades. So I started giving participation grades. This worked well with the new wave of teacher evaluations that required all students to be engaged in the lesson. I mean, I’ve never had a lesson where every single student participated meaningfully and engaged in higher order thinking, but…hey, I’ve only been in the classroom 10 years. I’ve got a ways to go.

long road

First, let me say that my personal philosophy is to try, at all costs, to not put students on the spot. I have found that I get more out of my students (especially ones with behavior issues and such) if I let them come to me, so to speak, rather than drag them kicking and screaming. If I just call on a student because I don’t think they’ve been paying attention, for me, that just creates all sorts of problems. I’m all about using public shaming, but it has to be artful. It can’t be for the sole purpose of embarrassing a kid who I know already struggles with something. And having been both a math and English teacher, there are kids who just struggle with some stuff. So anyway, my plan of attack was predicated on the philosophy that I don’t call kids out (99% of the time).

deer in headlights

I am a clipboard fanatic. I carry mine around with me everywhere. It gives me a huge advantage. Have you ever seen the look on a student’s face when he has done something he isn’t supposed to do and you just look at him and hold your clipboard and pretend to jot something down and then look right back at him? That’s a day-maker right there. You’ve got that kid in line for the rest of the class. I also carry around a list of positive phrases to help me with my classroom management. I can get pretty frustrated with my students when they act like…well…teenagers. So I have to work hard to stay even-keel and not let my emotions get the better of me. Point being, I carry a clipboard. I actually have 2 in case I set one down on one side of the room and go to the other and realize I need it.

clipboard

What I decided to do was give out participation grades. I decided (after lots of trial and error and tweaking) to give 4 participation grades every quarter. This worked out to about 1 participation grade every 2 weeks or so. I would print out a roster and track student participation during whole-class discussions and even small-group or partner work. I decided I would give students credit for wanting to participate. This was a key ingredient to the success of this system. I had 2 groups of students I worried about. The first were the overachievers. They raised their hands for everything. Hands up even before the question was finished. Every time. Clockwork. If I didn’t give these students credit – or the opportunity to earn credit – for being eager beavers, it would crush their spirit and they would probably take it personally and think that they’d done something wrong and I was mad at them. Then I had the stones. The kids that sat there and never wanted to say anything. Ever. Sometimes I wondered if they were even alive. There was no way they were actually going to answer a question. And even if I called on them (without their volunteering, of course), it would be hit or miss as to whether or not they would know the answer. So I had a dilemma with these students. What to do? What if I gave students credit just for raising their hands? Seriously. I ask a question (or another student asks a question) and I give points just for being willing to contribute. Obviously, I’m not able to call on every single student every single time, so sure, I would only call on 1 or 2, but the rest would get credit.

Game. Changer.game changer

First of all, the type-A’s were okay with it because they knew they were earning points to pad their 110% grade even when I didn’t call on them. Second, the students who normally sat like a bump on a log would wait until I asked a question that a ton of people knew the answer to and then they would raise their hand and hope to God I didn’t actually call on them. Which I often didn’t, because I knew exactly what they were doing and didn’t want to jeopardize the baby steps I was making with them. Plus, I also hit a 3rd group I didn’t realize existed. The fragiles. I have students every year who are high maintenance. They require finesse. They are the “I was just gonna say that” kid. They have a need to be recognized but not singled out. They are the “this is too hard! I can’t do this!” just because it doesn’t come easily right away or takes more than a single step to complete. When this kid raises a hand, you MUST call on him. Because if you don’t, you will a) hear from him that “I was just gonna say that!” after you call on the kid you do call on, and b) this kid will think you purposefully did not call on him because you don’t like him, think he’s stupid, or some other laundry list of teenager logic that makes little sense to the rest of us. But if I told everyone that they were getting credit for just raising their hands because I KNEW I wouldn’t be able to call on everyone every time, and that it was important to me that I hear from as many different people in a period as possible, that kid was managed. No longer did he feel slighted, because he knew I was paying attention to him. He saw that I saw his hand. He knew I knew that he “was gonna say that.”

But how did I manage this new method of participation grading? Ticks.tick marks

Tick marks. This system had an added benefit that I didn’t expect: increased wait time. In order for me to stay true to my word and give students points for raising their hands and participating, I had to keep track of it somehow. So I printed off a roster and slapped it on my clipboard. Whenever we were having a discussion, I would mark down tick marks every time a student raised his/her hand. Depending on the situation, I might even make a secondary mark after I actually called on a student. But the point was I was physically tracking student participation. And they knew it. They saw it. So they raised their hands. And I would mark a tick down for every single student. And when you have 22+ kids in a class, that can take some time. It feels like it takes forever, but it doesn’t really. What it does do is give you the wait time students so desperately need to process the question, find the answer, and decide to participate. By the time I was halfway through the tick marks, nearly every student’s hand would be raised. It was amazing.

wait time

To assign grades, I would give the student with the most tick marks for the time period (again, about 2 weeks) a 100% – in most cases it was out of 25 points, so a 25/25. Then, grades were calculated on a sliding scale. The next highest person (or persons, if there was a tie) would get 24/25, and so on and so forth. Everyone sort of bottomed out at about a “C”. I also would subtract points if a student was habitually disruptive or lethargic (sleeping, etc.).

If I knew certain students needed a teeny grade boost, I would reiterate the system before a class discussion. It would prompt participation. My students began to learn when I would get lazy, too. If I didn’t have my clipboard, participation dropped dramatically. The second I picked it up and started marking…boom. Sea of hands.

sea of hands

I like this system better than the popsicle sticks because even though students know they have to be prepared with that system, it still feels to me like a “gotcha.” I really like the idea of giving students the motivation to want to participate on their own. I mean, grades, by definition, are extrinsic motivation, but…I’m trying to build some sort of initiative and self-motive here. I have used this system with my 7th graders and also with my 9th graders and it has worked beautifully. And it’s a great tool to pull out when the administration walks through because you can show how engaged your students are in the lesson – and not just doing what you tell them to do; not just compliant, but really engaged and wanting to be a part of the discussion. On their own.

eager beaver

Once I started using this system, I found I had a lot more leeway to nudge students who might fall into that “yes, but what are you doing, as the teacher, to raise his/her grade” category. And I was able to sleep at night because it wasn’t really grade inflation, it was students earning points in a legitimate way. And it gave me ammunition. If parents or administration questioned my grades, I had one more intervention to throw at them: I give students points just for raising their hands. Let me tell you how many parents that shut up. It worked great in tandem with my “yes, and all the quizzes and tests are open notes.” There’ll be another post about why I give open-notes assessments in the future. And I used it to work the kids, too. I would tell them if they weren’t participating that they were essentially throwing points down the drain. There would always be a few who would rather die than raise their hand, but…to them, I would say, “Look, I’m doing everything I can here to help you out. I’m tempted to give you points just for breathing, but some of you are so intent on failing my class that I’m afraid you might actually stop.” Which would earn some laughs and maybe get a hand or two from those kids. Not always, but maybe.

making progress

Why I Offered Extra Credit, and How It Worked

So I decided to accept late work and I really became judicious about the homework I assigned. Yes, things improved for my students, but there were still many who would come to me at the end of the quarter and ask for extra credit. I found myself with a dilemma. On one hand, I had students who wouldn’t do all their work during the quarter, and then would ask for extra credit to raise their grade at the very end. So I stopped offering extra credit because I told them they had to do their work. On the other hand, I had kids who would do all their work and really were giving (at least close to) their all, but their grades still weren’t what they wanted. So I did want to give them an opportunity to do something to raise their grades. *sigh* Rock and a hard place.

So I got creative. I decided to offer real and true extra credit. In my experience talking with other teachers, I have found that most of them either don’t offer extra credit at all or they offer fake extra credit. And by fake, I mean they let anyone do extra work to raise their grade regardless of their effort throughout the quarter. Now I offer extra credit. What I do NOT offer is “instead of” credit. Here is what I mean. If a student comes to me at the end of the quarter (before the last Friday before the end of the quarter) and asks for extra credit or what he/she can do to raise his/her grade, I look at the grade book. If s/he has missing work, I tell the student to do the missing work and turn it in, because extra credit is just that: extra. It’s not “instead of” credit. They don’t get to do it instead of the work. If the student has no missing work, then I offer an extra credit assignment to improve his/her grade. This ensures that students don’t get a free pass to a higher grade, but also that if a student really has given some amount of effort, s/he can still bump his/her grade up a little bit.

Additionally, I try really hard to make the extra credit something students really have to have a strong desire to raise their grade to want to do. What I mean is, as an English teacher, I didn’t just give a list of words to define. As a math teacher, I didn’t just give a packet of worksheets with computation/skill & drill/plug & chug. I gave assignments that would require a real time and effort commitment. One extra credit assignment I gave as a high school English teacher was a list of 100 common PSAT words and students had to research, find, and list the word parts and meanings (prefixes, roots, & suffixes) along with either 3 words with the same root or 3 synonyms and 3 antonyms (grade-level quality). This took a LONG time, so I knew students were serious about improving their grades if they worked on this assignment. As a math teacher, one of my favorite extra credit assignments was a research paper/biography on a famous mathematician. I had a list of 50 or so mathematicians throughout history and students had to pick one, research him/her, and write a biography essay (word count and paragraph count minimums would vary by grade level and ability). I made an effort to do cross-curricular things, so students who were just expecting a random plug & chug extra credit were sorely mistaken. They had to really want it to do the research and write the essay. This strategy helped weed out the contenders from the pretenders. It also helped ensure that students felt like they allowed to do as much as possible to get their grade as high as possible.

Why I Decided to Accept Late Work

This post is highly related to my thoughts on why I stopped assigning homework – or better, really, why I changed my outlook on homework assignments. That being said, this post can be read in isolation from the homework post series.

I used to not accept late work. I think my first 2 years for sure, and probably my third year, too. But my third year was the year I lost my job in part because I had too many failing students and many of them came from families who did not like to have failing (or in some cases, C or D) students. I had to re-evaluate my philosophy on late work.

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So I did. I decided that in order to help students raise their grades if they were interested, I would accept their late work with many restrictions. Each day the work was late, students would receive only partial credit. Each additional day would result in less and less credit. I think I capped the late work submissions at either 3 or 5 days late, and then I would not accept the work.

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Holy frickin’ cow was that a lot of work for me. First I had to remember how many days late the student was turning the assignment in. Good luck with that, since students turned work into a tray and never put dates on their work, so it might be the next day before I saw it and had no idea when they turned it in. Then I had to do the math for how much credit to give. Would have been easy if the kid earned 100%, right? 1 day late? You get 90%, 2 days you get 80%, and 3 days, you get 70%. But ohmygosh no. The kid earned 62.5%, so now I have to figure out 80% of 62.5% and put it in the system. Since most of my work was worth like, 10-15 points, kids were getting like, 3 or 4 points by the time I was done. When I could figure out when the heck they turned it in. It was SO not successful. SUCH a bad idea.

But what else could I do? Accept late work the whole quarter? What kind of teacher would I be if I just let kids turn in their work whenever they wanted? Wouldn’t I foster and enable irresponsibility? Wouldn’t I perpetuate the problem of not doing work on time? Wouldn’t I suddenly get entire classes of kids not doing their work and suddenly giving me every single assignment from the quarter on the very last day? OH. MY. GOSH. How could I entertain such a notion?

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Well, I decided to give it a try because really, the worst that could happen would be that it didn’t work and the next quarter I’d revamp my policy. So I set up some very basic ground rules. Work that was not turned in when I collected it was late. No ifs, ands, or buts. This was true for classwork and homework (I rarely – if ever – assigned homework in many of my classes, so this distinction that work was work is important). If I collected it and it wasn’t ready to be turned in (I usually would count down from 5) it was considered late.

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Side note: This tip doesn’t warrant its own post, but I used to have lots of kids claim they turned work in on time and I had just lost it. I couldn’t prove them wrong, so I had to accept their re-work for full credit. To stop these shenanigans, I began stapling student work together. I’d count down from 5 with a stapler in my hand and say that anyone whose paper wasn’t in the stapled pile would be considered late. I never had another issue again.

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If a student wanted to turn in late work, I would accept it for half credit. Blanket rule. Half credit. 50%. Done.

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I would accept late work up until the last Friday before the end of the quarter. This gave me a full week, at least, to grade the late work so I wasn’t staying up all night the day before grades were due.

The only kids who failed my class were kids who didn’t turn in all their work. Really. I am dead serious. Not kids who did all their work on time. Not kids who got A’s on all their work. Not kids who passed all their tests. Any kid who turned in every assignment at any point during the quarter passed my class. This. Was. Groundbreaking. It was ammunition. It was fuel. Failing kid? Angry parent? Angry administrator? Did the kid do their work? Not my problem. Every other kid who turned in their work passed the class. End of story. Can he still turn it in? When does the quarter end? If it’s before the next Friday, then yes, he can turn it in. All of it. Let me tell you how fast that shut people up.

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I was a revolutionary. A visionary in my field.

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And I didn’t end up with piles and piles that last Friday before the end of the quarter. I found out that kids would normally turn their late work in within about a week or so. It ended up being much more of a trickle effect than a flood. I’d have one or two kids that would do all their missing work the last week and hand it to me, but that was manageable. I never had a kid who was missing ALL his work and then tried to turn it in. I found out that the kids who did absolutely nothing weren’t going to do it late any more than they were going to do it on time. And those were the kids who failed.

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Side note #2: I also did not grade work with no name. I know some teachers do the “no-name pile” for kids to claim, but I didn’t play that game. No name = no grade. If you don’t care enough about your work to put your name on it, I don’t care enough to grade it. Or if your work’s not important enough for you to write your name on it, it’s not important enough for me to grade. I wasn’t nasty about it. I didn’t tear up no-name work into little pieces in front of the kid whose work it was and make them cry to instill a lesson upon the class at large. I just threw them away at home or during my prep when I was grading and never brought it up. When a kid looked at their grades and realized it was missing, they’d come tell me they did it and I’d tell them it must not have had their name on it. BUT DON’T WORRY! I’d reassure them, you can redo it for half credit. And I promise, if this is the only time it happens, it won’t affect your overall grade. Occasionally I’d get some tears, but I never had to defend it to a parent or an administrator, because the kid got it.

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Again, my decisions about late work were predicated on the assumption that the work I assigned was valuable. I wanted my students to write the essay. I wanted them to do the definitions. I wanted them to answer the questions. They needed the practice. I needed the assessment to see their achievement. The work needed to be done. It wasn’t busy work. It wasn’t useless. It had a purpose. So if they didn’t do it on time, I wanted them to still do it for the intrinsic value of the work itself. So I gave them half credit for it. The percentage of my students doing their work throughout the quarter rose drastically. So did their grades. So did their learning. So did their achievement. So did their self-concept and self-esteem, because I had kids who were career failures suddenly passing a class.

I hope this post has made you think about the value of the work you assign and your own late work policy. What are your thoughts on my policy? What is your policy? Why do you have that policy?

Why I Stopped Assigning Homework – Part 2

Welcome to part 2 of my series on Why I Stopped Assigning Homework. This will make more sense if you read part 1, but you might still get useful information and insight if you read this entry first.

In part 1, I discussed how I noticed a correlation between student demographic and homework completion. I met another teacher who changed how I looked at homework and late work. I knew I needed to make changes.

But I still faced another reality: demographics. I began to realize that no matter how much some of my students might want to complete their work and see the value in the assignment, their home lives simply didn’t allow them to do it – at least not consistently. What was I to do? Well, I stopped assigning homework. It was that simple. I took the assignments I would normally have assigned as homework and I had students do them in class. You might ask how on earth I was able to get through the necessary material if I was taking up class time with work other teachers would have assigned to be done at home. I think that’s sort of like asking a mother of triplets, “How do you do it?” You just do. Once you set parameters and boundaries for yourself, you learn to live within them. I streamlined my classroom management. No longer did I have five minutes to waste on attendance. No longer did I have five more to waste passing out or collecting papers. I figured out ways to delegate secretarial tasks to students and ways to make my “housekeeping” tasks more efficient. I found the instructional minutes I needed so students could do the practice they needed, but in class.

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I didn’t anticipate a side effect of this, which was to help with missing work due to absenteeism. Like it or not, demographics are related to absenteeism, too – for a variety of reasons. However, I found that because I started having my students do all their work in class that when they came back, all they had to do was the classwork we’d done from while they were out. They just worked on it in class until they caught up with the rest of us. I’ll have more on how I handled absent work in a later post, because it really takes a whole system to make this no-homework approach work.

My students’ achievement soared. Where once I had over 50% failing rates, I was now having only 3-5 failing students in a class. Did every student do every assignment? No, of course not. I had students who refused to work. I had students who refused to make up things they missed. I had students who refused (okay, “forgot,” “lost,” whatever) to turn things in. It wasn’t perfect, but no longer did I participate in the teacher discussions lamenting the incompletion of homework. When I would chime in that “I don’t assign homework,” I would get looks like I’d grown a third head. To each their own.

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The flip side of this were the high-aptitude, low-motivated students. Most of my bright/gifted students came from situations where homework was expected and capable of being completed. If I stopped assigning homework to these students, many parents would have pitched a fit. But I still had a problem. I had students who didn’t do their homework and I had to fight tooth and nail with the parents to get it done. Or the kid failed. At best, he would earn a grade well below his potential. So I had to focus on purpose. I had to focus on challenge. Here is where I began to differentiate my students’ work by product. I gave them more options to complete assignments (drawing, technology incorporation, etc.). I piqued their interest. I made the assignments interesting (I refuse to say “fun” because my job is not to make things “fun.” I tell my students that if you want to have fun, go to Disney. My job is to make learning meaningful, engaging, and purposeful. If you have fun, great, but that’s not my goal.) and the completion rate went up. Sure, I still had students who were obstinate and just plain old refused to do the work, but dealing with one or two kids in a class as opposed to eight or ten was a huge lifesaver.

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You might be wondering about the situations where I had the student from a low SES background in a class where the majority of students were from higher SES backgrounds. My school grouped (I won’t use “tracked” because that’s such a taboo word, right?) students by ability level. In middle school there were three groups: regular, advanced, and honors. In high school, there were regular and honors in 9th and 10th and then AP in 11th and 12th. You would be correct if you assumed that these groupings followed a demographic trend. “Regs” and most “Advanced” students came from lower SES backgrounds and “Honors” kids were almost exclusively from high SES backgrounds. Same with Reg vs. Honors/AP in high school. So yes, I did occasionally get a student or two whose background and home life did not support homework. But again, with my new system, this meant I was working with just one or two students in a class in this situation. And I had the authority to be flexible. We were usually able to make it work.

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I just had to keep it in perspective. Why was I assigning this? Did it matter where it was done? Could a student complete it in class if s/he had the time? If so, why did it matter where it was completed? If it had to be done outside the classroom due to necessary materials (research on the internet, art materials, etc.), what could I do to make sure that students who didn’t have the ability to do those things at home could get them done somehow at school.

It was about purpose. Once I began to look at homework in that light, things changed. I didn’t have to fight the weary battles. My low SES students didn’t have homework to complete and my high SES students were more motivated to complete the homework they did have because it was more purposeful. And I had less grading to do, too. It was a win-win.

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I hope this has made you think about your homework philosophy and how it benefits (or doesn’t) your students.

Why I Stopped Assigning Homework – Part 1

Okay, okay, you got me. I didn’t completely stop assigning homework, but over the years I changed my philosophy about homework and it made a real difference in my students’ achievement.

I used to assign homework every night. I began my teaching career as a math teacher. I assigned homework. What kind of math teacher would I be if I didn’t assign homework? I taught 7th grade pre-Algebra and 8th grade Algebra I Honors.

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Wellllll, here’s the thing. Most of my students didn’t do their homework. Ever. Even if I accepted it late. They didn’t do it. Wouldn’t do it. Couldn’t do it. I didn’t know at first which one it was, or even if it was a combination of both. But the homework did not get done. And since I graded homework…you guessed it: my students were failing. It was doubly bad because they were getting 0’s on their homework and then they were failing their quizzes and tests because they weren’t getting the practice they needed from the homework. And since they didn’t do the homework, I couldn’t really do any sort of remediation or re-teaching because I didn’t know what they didn’t know. And they couldn’t ask useful questions because they didn’t know what they didn’t know. It was a mess. This went on for three years. At one point, I actually lost a teaching position in part because I couldn’t figure out how to get my passing rate up to an acceptable margin. My answer was: “They’re not doing their work!” But I had yet to figure out how to take that and make it NOT impact my employment.

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I began to notice patterns in homework completion (or lack thereof). There were two very important things that began to crystallize.

The first thing I noticed – politically incorrectly, I might add (probably, anyway) – was that there was a strong correlation between student homework completion and demographic. Students with low SES rarely completed their homework. No matter how much time I would give them, it just wouldn’t get done. They often were career failures and were on track to drop out at 16, enter the work force, and probably live on public assistance the rest of their lives. It wasn’t pretty.

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The second thing I noticed was that there was a strong correlation between student aptitude and homework completion. Very frequently, I noticed that students who were very capable but highly unmotivated chose not to complete their homework. With this population, if I called home enough and really made an effort, most of the time the parents would somehow manage to get some of the missing work completed and students who were capable of making straight A’s would scrape by with a C or a D.

What was I to do?

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I had to have a paradigm shift regarding homework. I honestly don’t remember where I was – some professional development thing, no doubt – and I met a veteran teacher (I only had a few years under my belt) who was explaining her view on homework. Now during my first few years of teaching I was vehemently against accepting late work and I would only do it begrudgingly in extreme circumstances. I was also a staunch advocate of assigning homework. But the teacher I met changed my views. I don’t think she even intended to; I remember it wasn’t a discussion about the merits or such of homework, but it was just part of a larger conversation that happened to feature her views on homework. I have to paraphrase her words because it’s been too long to remember them exactly, but essentially she asked, “What is the purpose of homework?” That really made me think. Why did I assign homework? What did I hope to accomplish with it? Was it just to have something to grade? Was it so students could practice a skill? Was it to punish? Was it to reward? Was it to enhance? Was it to enrich? What was its purpose? The more I thought about it, the more I realized there were many reasons that I assigned homework. She went on to explain that if she was assigning homework for the right reasons, she really wanted students to do it and would do whatever she could to ensure it would get done because of how valuable it was to the student.

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In that instant, I completely changed my outlook on accepting late work – but that will be elaborated in another post. But in the following moments, I also changed my outlook on assigning homework. I didn’t want to assign work that wasn’t meaningful. I didn’t want to assign homework because it was just what teachers did. I wanted to make sure my homework was purposeful. Was there a new skill students needed to practice? Did I need more points to incorporate into students’ grades? Was there an upcoming assessments for which students needed to review? I wanted to make sure that students would want to do their work because it meant something to them.

Next week’s post will conclude this series. Stay tuned!

It Summer! And Other Interesting Things.

By now most teachers are completely done with the school year. 14-15 is OVER. Is there anyone who is still teaching this far into June? Unless you’re at a year-round school, probably not. I really miss my summers. This is the 3rd summer I’ve had to work, since I now occupy a 12-month position. And I miss my summers. There are things I DON’T miss about the classroom, that’s for sure. But I do miss my summers. I miss sleeping in. Not that there was much of that, what with trainings and planning for the upcoming year, but there was some. And I do miss planning for the upcoming year. I used to keep a running document of all the things that didn’t work during the school year and I would spend the summer figuring out how to improve them. Not just specific lessons, but stuff in general. Like maybe I realized I was ending up with too much work to grade. I would sit down and try to figure out a system where I could still assign what I needed to in order to achieve certain goals but get things graded on time and without taking up three hours of my evenings. Or I might realize that students spent way too much time going to the bathroom and so I would figure out a plan to reduce (or eliminate) that problem. How many of you do that? I tell you, it’s what really helped each year of my teaching improve. It’s how I came up with my student contract and my hall passes.

In other news, the Teachers Pay Teachers annual conference is coming up very soon! It’s scheduled for July 9-10 in Las Vegas, NV. I had such a great time and learned so much last year that I can’t wait to go back. And this time, my husband is coming with me! We’ll get to go to twice the number of sessions and learn double what I could have on my own. If anyone is coming, I’d love to meet up with you at some point. We will probably be going to the secondary seller meet up Thursday night after the sessions end. I also got business cards this year, since they were super popular last year and I wished I’d brought some. They came in early and I’m stoked about how they turned out. If you’re a premium seller on TpT and you haven’t registered for the conference, I think they’re still accepting registrations. It is SO worth it. I was nervous that it wouldn’t be, but it totally was! I learned so much and improved my business by leaps and bounds! I hope to see you there!