The school year is ending in the United States and I hear a lot of chatter about grades. The most common complaint I hear is that one kid or another scored high on tests but ended the year with a disappointing grade for not turning in all of the homework. Does that grading system make sense when the point of the homework is to prepare kids for tests?

In the real world, results are what matter the most, as long as you arrive at the results legally and ethically. If an adult makes a sales presentation and nails it, no one cares how many hours she practiced before the meeting.

My suggestion is that schools issue homework grades that are separate from test grades. That way you can get a better sense of what is going on with each kid. Blowing off homework is a valid strategy if you're confident you will ace the test. It's especially valid if skipping homework creates time for a kid to participate in additional extracurricular activities.

Would you rather hire someone who cared little about homework but aced all tests, or someone who was dependable and hard-working but underperformed at test time? The right answer is that it probably depends on the job description. If you're hiring a security guard, you might want the reliable candidate. If you're hiring a research scientist, go for the test scores. If you're hiring a lawyer, you probably want both qualities.

Not all homework is created equal. If an assignment involves writing a paper, for example, obviously that grade needs to be included with test scores. I would only strip out the memorization and practice types of homework assignments and grade them separately.

At one point in our history it might have made sense to blend the scores for homework performance and tests. A combined score probably did a good job of predicting how well a kid might someday run the family farm. But in the information economy, brilliance and reliability go separate directions. We want brilliant people designing microchips and reliable people manufacturing and selling them.

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Jun 11, 2012
It depends on what you consider the purpose of school. Is it a tightly focused, one-dimensional goal of getting high test scores? Or is there more to it than just the direct learning of facts?

If it's the former, then I would agree with you. If all schools exist for is to award grades based on test results, then I would say you're right.

But I believe there is more to school than that. I was thinking the other day of how many times I heard someone in a class ask words to the effect of, "Why do I have to learn this (fill in the type of class - math, science, etc.). I don't see how I'd ever need this in real life!"

Most teachers give some half-baked answer that tries to support their subject matter. I think that's the wrong answer. Here's mine - see what you think.

"Have you ever heard of cross-training? You know; when you run one day and work out with weights the next? Well, when you learn math, you're cross-training your mind. You're learning how to think in a different way than you would, for example, in an English class. You're making your mind stronger, and therefore better capable in decision-making and problem-solving.

"Moreover, you're learning self-discipline and how to complete tasks. When I say you'll be graded on doing your homework as well as on tests, I'm teaching you how to organize your time and complete your assignments. It's not just about the end result. It's about learning the process, so when you're faced with an assignment in the real world, you'll know how to plan and schedule the work into manageable pieces, leading to the result you need to reach.

"So, quit whining and do the work."

One of your recent posts discussed what you called will power, and what I called self-discipline. Turning in your homework takes will power and self-discipline, and learning those traits is one of the additional benefits of attending school.

The end result is important, but it isn't everything. Learning the process of learning is imporant as well in developing self-discipline.
Jun 11, 2012
Great. Now we have another reform idea for the educational system to add to the million we already have.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 11, 2012
In the real world, most of us are evaluated by the metrics chosen by our boss, regardless of how arbitrary they are. In this way, a teacher who chooses to include homework grades is very accurately reflecting real-world challenges.
Jun 11, 2012
I was also one of the folks who got by pretty handily without doing any homework. I actually had a math teacher when I was 15 call my parents and tell them I was getting a B because I hadn't been handing in any homework, but I should be getting an A because I had an A going based on the tests. As I recall, my dad said, "Well, a B isn't that bad." I got so steamed up that I sat and stewed in class till I stood up, walked halfway to the front of the class, and threw my open geometry book smashing into the middle of the chalkboard. Incredibly, the guy talked me down privately and if I'm remembering correctly, told me he'd give me the A without the homework.

I also scored very high on the National Merit Scholarship Qualifying test (no scholarship, but 'honorable mention'), and the ACT (this was Iowa). But I had non-A's in several of my classes by that point, and they actually set up a discussion group for underacheivers for me and several of my friends with the school psychologist.

When I got to college studying Computer Engineering, the no-homework strategy failed me completely - it turned out I'd been getting by on what I already knew or could figure out ad hoc at test time, and that bank was already overdrawn.

Unfortunately, out here in the real world, there's little if any need for algebra or noun declensions, but there's a ton of rote work, so I think there's some value in enforcing homework and other busy work through grades to teach self-discipline, which I still lack in spades.

Sometimes its not just a matter of getting the "right answer," but rather, getting it done.
+8 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 11, 2012
Here's my take as a 20 year teacher with a master's degree in education: The big problem is that most grading systems aren't valid or reliable - using those words as scientific terms.

If a scientific measurement is valid, it shows what it says it shows. But we know that lots of people get mediocre or bad grades in high school and succeed in life while lots of other people get great grades and live lives of mediocrity or failure. So we know that our grading system isn't valid.

If a measurement is reliable, the results are the same (more or less) for every test subject, every time. But we know that grades vary by teacher and by subject. In fact, grading systems in each subject area are often based on that teacher's favorite teacher's grading system, or on the department chair's favorite system - again often based on a favorite teacher.

In fact, most teachers don't really learn about scientifically valid and reliable grading systems until they do a master's degree program.

Changing the grading system requires a change in the culture of education, but because our current system meets the market's least expectation, the change won't happen. As long as the public education system is "good enough for most people" it won't get the attention it needs to improve.
Jun 11, 2012
The homework assignments were known to be part of the grade. So their being part of the grade would not be a surprise. Their inclusion in the grade may plausibly be lamentable, but certainly should not have been a surprise. Much like student debt, though seemingly onerous, should not have been a shock to anyone following the terms of their agreements.

As for work, in my experience, sometimes other peoples "homework" involved getting the information I needed to complete *my* task. And even though those people might have completed their specific major task well, their lackadaisical negligence in attending to the needs of my part of the project often hurt the efficient completion of the overall task.

I'd say that it is not *really* hard to combine someone that can do homework & also pass tests. The height of multi-tasking, it is not.
Jun 11, 2012
I teach at a university, and hire research students. I see a fair number of brilliant people who won't do homework, but can do well on tests. I've also seen plenty of brilliant but unreliable kids, who are capable of great things but accomplish little. My experience is that an unreliable person makes a poor researcher. If I knew a student didn't get their homework and aced their tests, I would not be interested in hiring them.
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Jun 11, 2012
My personal philosophy: Grades before High School (when they count for college entrance) are motivation killers and most pre-High School homework is a profound waste of time. I home schooled through Junior High. I never gave grades or homework. Grades exist to give parents the illusion that either the teacher is doing his/her job well or that the kid is not up to snuff.

I had my kids read a lot, write a lot, do a lot of math and science and engage with other adults and kids. Getting to talk about what they were doing to interested adults was motivating. Presenting a play or science fair project was motivating. Grades were demotivating - because as soon as they did enough to qualify for an "A" they were done. Math was an interesting case - because it involved frequent tests to ensure they mastered the material and were ready to move on. (Had I been stronger in math myself, I might have been able to evaluate them in other ways, I suppose.) That was the one subject in which I could see them doing just enough to meet the standard to move on.

Everything else they approached with much more enthusiasm and went into much more depth than their schooled peers - because they were pursuing their interests - not trying to meet an artificial standard set up by a system to which they were required to conform.

I never gave "homework". We were usually done by 1pm. Why give grammar worksheets to a kid who is devouring Victor Hugo? He's absorbing grammar several hours a day. Sure we covered the rules, but we did not have to do "units" on grammar. The two of my kids who took the SAT both got near perfect scores on the verbal portion. Science was hands on or involved research and writing. Language lessons were online. They were either progressing or not. Who needs worksheets?

Before I started homeschooling, I deeply resented the hours of homework my kids were bringing home in elementary school. It was killing family time - and I did not see much value in the worksheets themselves. I found homeschooling to be easier on me than supervising homework!

By High School - grades take on a different function. I absolutely saw the shift to doing enough to get the "A", but the classes (International Baccalaureate) were/are challenging enough to keep them engaged and learning.

The homework they get tends to be challenging and helps them prepare for tests. Homework checks do help keep them on track. Left to their own devices a couple of them would try to cram a quarter's worth of chemistry into two nights of study with unfortunate results. That's what happens in the good classes, anyway. The bad classes have homework for the sake of homework. It gives the teachers something to check off so that he/she can come up with a grade. It has little to do with actual learning or mastery.

As far as SAT scores: Colleges do look at scores first - but then they want to see good grades in challenging classes. A poor GPA indicates a risk that the student might not have the focus or the work ethic to succeed in college despite the intellectual potential.
Jun 11, 2012
Wow. I have a spectrum of opinions on this.

On the one hand there are people who are very smart, yet somehow unable to accomplish any task presented them. The majority of my high school peers were in advanced classes with top scores in college entry tests and were like this. Most of them work tech support or low-level IT jobs. Despite their intellectual horsepower, they just can't bridge the gap between potential and actual.

On the other hand, copious amounts of work seems to be a failing concept. Most of my family is in Finland. You might note that Scandinavian countries (and Finland, specifically) continually top the ranks of best educated people in the world. School starts for them at age 7 (vs 5 in the USA), they have shorter school days, they have NO HOMEWORK, they have only 9 years of school (vs 12 years in the USA), and parents are not expected to be involved in their children's academics. Even with budgets that are a pittance compared to ours (just like every other country in the world) they lead the world.

Personally, I think doing your work is an important thing, educationally, and specifically to prepare you for college and a career. However, giving people a ton of work that's kinda pointless is demoralizing.
Jun 11, 2012
"Would you rather hire someone who cared little about homework but aced all tests, or someone who was dependable and hard-working but underperformed at test time?"

I would rather hire someone who takes all his responsibilities seriously and doesn't just decide on his own what work he thinks he should do and what he shouldn't. If he has questions about the merits of a certain task, he should come and ask and not just blow it off.

Homework serves a purpose, and if it does get graded, it motivates kids to do it, perhaps learning something he didn't realize that he needed to know.
Jun 11, 2012
In a Philosophy class, discussion of the subject during class may be considered more important than the exam. In a Math class, you could skip all the lectures, but a high score on the exam shows you have mastered the subject.

Which is more important? The process, or the result? Or both?

On a report card, everything gets quantified into a single number (or letter grade) for the course. And often that number is further reduced in significance by combining it with everything else into a GPA. So the result of a years education is reduced to 3.14 or 4.0.

Then after 12 years, a single test reduces your entire education experience into a SAT score. If you score above a certain magic number, you win, go to college, graduate heavily in debt and go to work as a barista in a coffee shop. You you score low, you go become the assistant manager in the coffee shop.
Jun 11, 2012
What age level are we talking about? A few months ago I read about homework not helping kids at least until they are seniors in high school. I'm on the fence of the idea, but I'm passing it along because it's relevant.

For learning languages having to recall something *at the correct time* helps remembering it. However when the kid does his homework in relation to his french or japanese class might be outside of that proper time and a varible that depends on the kid, his habits, and the day he's having.

From my own experience, unless it's like a heavy math class (calculus) where you need a lot of practice to get it right, or a lit assignment where the writing sticks with you I don't remember homework helping that much. Boring and/or bad books make homework counterproductive.

Jun 11, 2012
I agree, at least in spirit. I've never understood the "A for effort" type of thinking. Grades should reflect what you take away from the class, not how hard you had to work to gain that knowledge.

Grading techniques should vary in different subject areas. For math, and many sciences, tests can do a pretty good job of covering the subject area. Homework and lab experiments let the student practice and can be used to see where the student needs help, but grades on homework and labs don't need to be part of the final grade.

For history, social studies, etc., there is no way a test can do a good job of covering the subject matter. In these cases, ongoing homework assignments may be a much better way to measure whether a student is reading and understanding the material at the time. Much of this information is close at hand in our connected iPhone/Android world, so general familiarity with the subject area and why it's important, along with the ability to use online research tools, is much more important than the ability to list the U.S. presidents or the date of the Gettysburg address.
Jun 11, 2012
I was one of those kids that could ace a test without doing most of the homework assignments, and I'm also one of the kids that only had average grades because I was too uninterested to do the homework. I loved going to college because I didn't have a single engineering professor grade homework, so I could pick and choose what I needed to focus on without worrying about my grades suffering.

I think having graded homework is a plus in younger grades (I'd say 1st through 7th or 8th) when learning the process is what counts, and kids are still trying to find their learning style and learning time management. By the time one get's to high school, the focus should be shifted from the process to the results, and by that point you should have most of the skills to know which homework needs to be focused on to reinforce the material. Unfortunately with today's standard tests and one-size-fits-all education system, I'm not sure most teachers have much leeway to decide how to handle homework.
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Jun 11, 2012
@kyel, I understand what you mean by your statement, but homework is less important when I can just search the question online and find the answer. It becomes a tedious process of simply transcribing the answers. Also, as Scott writes, being able to perform under pressure is a life skill that's vital to many careers, and catering to people who test badly doesn't teach this necessary skill.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 11, 2012
I remember take home tests and open book tests to be far harder. Homework, ideally, is designed not to prepare for tests but to broaden the knowledge being taught in the classroom. Tests should be designed to measure one's understanding of the knowledge they are learning about so that teachers can reassess their learning plans and improve the student's knowledge and understanding.

I would argue that test scores should never be used for grading and that homework assignments, projects, and extra activities be used for determining grades and tests be used as evaluative tools to improve the lesson plan within the classroom. That way you also eliminate biases in test scores that reflect certain inabilities to perform well at testing.

Homework can reflect not only completion of assigned tasks but also the depth and ability to excel within assigned tasks.
Jun 11, 2012
I like this thinking, I do remember when I was in high school I had the exact same scenario. Low homework or homework not turned in, however was acing all the tests. Basically I knew the material. Why did I want to waste my time in homework repeatedly doing the same boring stuff over and over again. As a teenager or even a kid my brain needed stimulation to thrive and grow and repetitive things, that to me, were useless because I already knew them was unproductive. I still believe that today. I actually failed one English class because I just didn't do the homework. They put me into another English class to make this up which dealt with literature. I turned around and aced this course because every new book was a new adventure. We explored the meaning to stories and our ideas. There were textbook answers to question then our answers to questions. Our answers were never wrong. However, we all knew the textbook answers that would be on tests and exams. Shakespeare was still incredibly boring and I still have no idea why we need to learn it in high school but I did learn to appreciate it by reading other stories first. I learned to appreciate literature. Something that has served me well to this day. I still enjoy reading new book and old books. I got D's and C's in English courses up to my final year in which I had to take this literature course. In my 23 years after school I really don't remember much of English courses, nor do I care really. Repetitively writing and forming useless sentences. But that one class of literature and exploring the lives of people through story and learning lesson from their mistakes has served me well through my life.
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
Jun 11, 2012
We run into this quite a bit in my engineering courses. Often the tests are 85-90 percent of the final grade, which makes sense. Especially now that most homework problems, if issued from a book, have the answers available online....it doesn't make sense that the better cheater and copier will do better in the class.
Jun 11, 2012
I would contend that is if your grading method is to be used, the test creation process would need to be modified. Also, what would you do with those students who "don't test well"? Would you move them into vocational studies? I don't disagree with your position, just not sure how to implement it.
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