Homework assignments began to increase after the former Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957. Schools were criticized for presenting a soft curriculum for reasons that are not clear, homework was seen as part of the solution. Unfortunately, teachers assumed that homework should be graded even though its role in evaluation was ill-defined.
About forty years later the effectiveness of homework as an instructional tool became the subject of national scrutiny. The research has fueled a fierce debate on the efficacy of homework. The debate is likely to continue for the foreseeable future. There are disturbing myths about homework. One questionable belief is that it should be included as part of evaluation even though it is a formative assessment.
The role of homework is clear – it is a “formative” type of assessment. Formative assessments are those instructional devices used by teachers while a new unit is being learned like work sheets, discussions, lectures, etc. Such learning activities are not supposed to be graded, because they are essentially viewed as practice. They can help teacher evaluate their instruction.
When teachers have finished a particular unit or number of standards, then a “summative” assessment is given. Summative assessments are typically called “tests,” although quizzes might also be considered summative when they assess a specific amount of material larger than a few day’s work.
Articles on the role of homework typically omit the role of homework in assessment, and teachers continue to grade it. Sometimes this grade can be significantly large, perhaps 25% of a total grade or even more.
The consequence of grading homework can be the difference between passing or failing. This is a huge consequence for students to bear because some teachers don’t understand the fundamental difference between formative and summative assessments. Evaluation is not about homework.
Beyond the professional considerations which are likely to be kicked around for a while there are common sense issues that speak to the role of homework as an instructional tool. These issues invite serious debate about the practice of grading homework.
Students do not have equal resources for completing homework. Some have Internet access, many do not. Many students do not have the bare essentials like a proper place at home to study or parents who can or will help.
If homework is to be valid as a grade it should be graded. Frequently it is merely checked off if students have it but not graded. These checks are, by mysterious methods, “converted” into grades.
Of all student work homework assignments are the most likely to receive zeroes. The accumulation of zeroes can unfairly skew the total grade fair below the total grade as indicated by tests.
The effects of zeroes on beginning learners can place many dangerously at-risk. Failure does not motivate, but frustrates and discourages.
Homework is often assigned over weekends and holidays thereby interfering with family plans. Kids need a break.
Many students have nights with hours of homework. This can be counterproductive, especially for young learners.
If homework is based on standards (as it should be) whether or not students do it will naturally effect their grades on summative assessments. For this reason, no separate grade is needed if teachers make it clear to students and parents that the real purpose of homework is for studying (practice) and diagnosis (feedback).
Failure to complete homework is a responsibility issue, and, as such, should be reported to parents just as inattentiveness, sleeping in class, and similar issues.
Many home help sites have blossomed in the past decade, but the best homework help is for parents to be informed about homework defects.
Teachers must remember that homework is badly flawed an instructional tool. Grading everything that students do is unnecessary, and grading homework is simply not best practice. Remind students that they are studying when they do homework and that they will benefit from it by getting better grades on their assessments. Encourage parents to foster responsibility. Use summative assessments for evaluation.