Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Grading Homework

It is hard to discuss the worth of homework assignments without writing about grading as well. They are inextricably interwoven.  Many parents and students misunderstood the grading and homework policy approved by the PCS BOE two years ago. It was a progressive policy that was student and parent friendly.

Those who opposed the policy often said they had not read it and this included an Education professor who spoke in one of his classes against Potsdam Central's policy - a policy he was too academically lazy to read in advance of his critique.

Unfortunately, too many people had run with rumors instead of facts. Here are some of the facts:

~  Homework was encouraged by the new policy - so nothing changed there. However, it was made clear that homework should bring learning forward... otherwise it was busywork.

~ Secondly, the policy made a distinction between two types of assessment students face. The first, called formative assessments, determine how much students have learned and how much they still have to learn. Formative assessments can include question-and-answer sessions in class or practice homework or pop quizzes that are intended to assess ongoing progress. These assessments enable the teacher to gauge how well students are learning the material, which students need extra instruction, and which should move ahead to more challenging material.

These assessments also put a lens on the quality of instruction. If many students are not comprehending a topic - as evidenced by a poor showing on homework or classwork- the teacher may decide on different approaches to teaching.
(These types of assessments should not be graded. They should be closely evaluated by the teacher so meaningful feedback is given to students during the phase in their learning when they are not yet expected to "have learned" the material. In essence, students should have time to practice before being tested and graded.) 

~ Summative assessments, on the other hand, should be graded. Why? Because these assessments encompass the knowledge students should have learned about that subject already. These assessments are more formal and include tests, quizzes, essays, and projects. Essays are generally done at home...projects are generally done at home...thus certain types of homework were still to be graded.
 (To reiterate, when students are given homework on material the teacher believes the class should have learned already, then it is this type of assessment that should be both evaluated and graded.)

Why was the homework and grading issue focused upon by the BOE?  First of all, it made no sense to grade homework when the purpose of that homework was to practice (in order to learn or master a concept). For instance, it was commonplace for math students to be instructed in new math principles and then given practice homework. The homework was collected the next day (not gone over), graded, and returned some time afterwards. Students knew that their practice homework was really a test so they...
* could ask their parents for help if they did not understand the lesson. (This gave students from higher socio-economic families an obvious edge.)
* could ask friends for help (which often meant copying answers and still not understanding the material).

This, of course, created problems:

  1. The teacher did not know the true impact of his/her teaching because parental instruction skewed the results. 
  2. The teacher did not know how many students were struggling because some, possibly many, were getting homework assistance from friends. 
  3. The grading of practice homework encouraged cheating.
  4. Many students felt they could not show up to class and simply declare that they did not understand the material. A zero on heavily weighted practice homework assignments was not an option. 
No teacher can know for sure who is doing a student's homework. In a place like Potsdam, where there are so many professors per capita, it is clear that any number of students are going home to parents who have higher academic degrees than high school teachers. This, of course, provides an advantage to those students. Some feel that students from all socio-economic backgrounds should operate, in school,  on as equal a playing field as possible.

When the Homework and Grading policy was first approved a few years ago, a reporter spoke to me and said that he was not giving much ink to a few of the highly vitriolic complaining parents because it was clear to him that these parents were interested only in making sure their children received high grades while giving little thought to the needs of students who struggle.

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