The problem of trying to help failing students pull grades up is as old as teaching. This is especially true at the end of the year when some students seem to have accepted defeat and become essentially “visitors” in the classroom. In many cases it simply may be too late, but some changes in grading procedures may be ethical, legal, and actually justified.
Motivation and how it works is not understood by many teachers. Extrinsic motivators like grades, rewards, candy, and a plethora of “things” are not the universal answer no matter what time of the year they are used. Realizing that extrinsic rewards do not have the same value to all students is fundamental.
Understanding that extrinsic rewards often lose their value the more they are used is essential. The same generalizations apply to threats about failure, grade repetition, disappointing parents, etc. Failing students — especially those who fail frequently — develop coping mechanisms to help them accept failure. A common method is to attribute the blame for failure to circumstances beyond their control.
This is not a conscious choice by the student. Teachers typically are raised by parents who instill values that make success emotionally possible. Chronically failing students all too often project an image that is antithetical to the values of their teachers. Coping may appear like quitting. Environmental issues may well be barriers for students, as well.
Although evaluation and assessment are virtually universal aspects of public education, the way teachers grade is often not based on statistical procedures that yield good data. Teachers are only now beginning to understand the differences between formative and summative assessments. Teachers too often believe that everything students do must receive a grade, and that is not the case.
Homework, for example, is a formative assessment. As such, it is a tool used for practice and diagnosis and is not graded. If homework is well-designed and based solidly on standards to be learned, then homework is actually assessed by formal tests and quizzes. If students haven’t kept up with homework, they will not test well — this is the point students should understand.
The same rule applies to worksheets and a variety of instructional tools. Parents should understand this point and should be informed when students are not completing work. But they should be told that the missing work will negatively affect formal assessments, i.e. tests and quizzes. Increasingly, schools are adopting a policy that forbids failing students due to missing homework.
The mathematical process by which a grade is derived may also be reexamined. The value of assessments and how many assessments are given requires thought based on an understanding of mathematics. Although there is more than one way to grade fairly standards are needed. Teachers and administrators should work together to derive fair methods.
Grades belong to students, not teachers. The courts have ruled that students have certain “property rights,” where grades are concerned. Although teachers have wide latitude in assigning grades, courts do not like “arbitrary and capricious” grading procedures and recognize that students can appeal grades assigned unfairly.
When students are graded on attendance, misbehavior, tardiness, bringing back signed papers, and other behaviors that are non-academic the chances are large that they can violate the “arbitrary and capricious” standard.
If a student is failing due to such non-academic matters, the teacher would seem to be justified in looking at how a student’s grade was affected.
Having different versions of a test or quiz is a good idea for allowing students to retake a test or quiz. Alternate versions of summative assessments can be constructed to address deficiencies that caused a student to perform poorly on the original test.
For example, a student may have good motivation to learn, but may have weaknesses in reading skills which interfere with his ability to interpret the questions. An alternate test might be rewritten with special attention given to using a vocabulary that is more easily interpreted by students who are significantly below grade level in reading.
If an assessment is given a second time, the teacher should encourage the student ask questions about anything they cannot understand and ask for clarification.
Teachers should find methods that help students learn and that might include a re-test policy. The practice of “teach, test, and move on” can puts students in trouble quickly.
The solution to helping a student pass may well lie in the grade book. Teachers not comfortable with changing policies at the end of the year can at least consider changes for next year to prevent dilemmas like, “What do I do with all those zeroes?”
Students shouldn’t fail due to undone homework assignment unless that negligence resulted in poor assessments. Don’t give zeroes punitively. Students don’t learn to pass by failing. Don’t grade behavior or adjust grades arbitrarily.
Revisit the grading system. Ask peers how they grade, but most of all, read about contemporary assessment methods. Don’t use an evaluation system born simply from convenience or familiarity.