Homework and grades.

The NY Times rewinds the typical homework debate. The post gets predictable pro and con responses: “homework is ruining my kid’s life” vs. “homework is a necessary component to learning”.

As is often the case, the situation at hand involves middle and elementary school students. High school homework rarely gets much scrutiny, unless it’s high achieving students complaining (with a lot of justification) about the huge amount of work they have to stay on top of to stay competitive.

But outside the top 10%, homework’s impact on high school students is a much neglected issue, and it shouldn’t be. Few people seem to understand the inordinate influence homework has on student transcripts—and the results, for the most part, are near-fraudulent.

High school students are far less likely to do assigned homework and the consequences for non-compliance are much higher, because students who don’t do homework often fail—not for lack of demonstrated subject matter skills, but simply for not doing their homework.

Here’s a chart that pretty much any teacher in the country could produce, comparing achievement (test scores) to classwork and homework effort.

(from Reflections of a First Year Math Teacher)

Don’t be distracted by the positive correlation. This is for individual grades, so the individual points are what matter. Notice how many students work hard, yet have failing test results, and how many students don’t work much at all, yet ace the tests.

This graph reflects the reality I point out ad infinitum: effort is only tangentially related to achievement, and then only at the individual level. Students who try harder don’t do better than students who don’t try at all. The lurking variable, of course, is ability.

For this reason, teachers should not include homework as a significant part of a grade, and should never allow missing homework to lower a grade. (This means, English teachers, that if a student doesn’t do an assigned essay, you find another way to assess the student.)

But of course, teachers routinely include homework as 25, 35, 50% of the grade. Happens all the time, and no one calls teachers on this behavior because it’s so damn cheap and easy to argue that homework is essential, good for both discipline and achievement. Never mind that there’s no real evidence for the latter, and the former should not influence grading.

The “homework proxy for effort” skew is understandable, given that teachers really can’t grade students purely on demonstrated ability. Teachers would fail too many students if they set an absolute ability standard. (See the above chart again if you need reminding.)

Teachers tend to value effort anyway—it makes them feel needed. So this preference, coupled with the real dilemma imposed by teaching and assessing students whose skills are far below the required ability level, gives them license to reward effort, to some degree.

But the degree matters.

Boosting hardworking students’ grades just a bit (say from one grade’s “+” to another grade’s “-“) is fine. While some may raise an eyebrow at the idea of giving a failing student a D- because he shows up and tries, I not only forgive this, but engage in the practice frequently.

Giving a student with mediocre math skills an A or B simply because they work hard and finish all their homework is quite another matter and worst of all, giving a low grade to students with excellent test performance—in many cases even failing the student—is outright fraud.

This happens every day, although it’s drowned out by all the middle class parent whining about how much work their middle schoolers have.

In high school, teachers are assigning homework, students aren’t doing it, and teachers are giving lower grades—often failing students completely—even though their skills are strong, simply because they don’t do their homework. Teachers are a moralizing lot, by and large, and they are far more comfortable giving low grades, or outright failing, kids who don’t try and aren’t compliant than they are doing the same to hardworking kids with low skills.

This leads to astonishingly bizarre grade results. Two students might each have very weak algebra skills but one gets an A, because she goes to a school that weights homework as 50 or more percent of the grade and does extra credit, while the other fails at the same school simply for not doing his homework. Students who can read at basic proficiency can fail English for not doing their essays, while functionally illiterate students who earnestly string together sentences on books they didn’t understand get Bs.

Five of my algebra sophomore students last year scored Basic on their state tests–but failed algebra for not doing their homework. One of my best geometry students failed geometry last year for not doing his homework—at least, he was one of my best students until he left for alternative high school because he’d failed so many classes (all by not doing homework) that he can’t graduate on a normal schedule. Several of my top Algebra II students this year took Algebra II/Trig last year and scored basic—but, yes, failed for not doing their homework. Meanwhile, I have colleagues teaching AP Calculus to students who scored Below Basic on all their math state tests up to that point. How can that happen?

State universities don’t use test scores for basic admission, but grades. Which explains why remediation is such a huge problem, doesn’t it?

Of course, at this point in a conversation someone will say, condescendingly, that the students just need to learn how to put in some effort, go through the motions, and I have to fight the urge to go find a baseball bat. Really? We’re talking about a nationwide problem and some idiot treats this as a cheap sermon on morality and obedience? Seriously?

I mean, never mind the fraud that teachers are engaging in, failing competent students while giving good grades to functional illiterates. Consider the massive waste of money thrown away because so many teachers confuse homework obedience with academic achievement. And of course, because our nation is convinced that all kids must be on the college track, there’s so little room for error that one or two Fs ensure that a student is off-track and just marking time until alternative high school is an option.

Districts desperate to stop teachers from indiscriminately failing otherwise competent kids (compared to the kids who are passing) institute those policies that annoy eduformers and earn them lots of mocking catcalls—Fs can’t be less than 50%, homework can’t be more than 10% of the grade, and so on—but these policies make perfect sense when considered in light of the money districts lose to dropouts and quick credit factories that allow students to collect enough credits without learning a thing—even less than they learned from the teacher who gave them an F.

Never forget: grades are a fraud. And in homework, stop wondering about how much is given, and start asking about how much it’s worth to the grade. Because if it’s more than 5%, it’s too much.

About educationrealist

38 responses to “Homework and grades.

  • Teachers confuse diligence, achievement — Joanne Jacobs

    […] who base grades on homework confuse obedience with academic achievement, writes Education Realist. Boosting hardworking students’ grades just a bit (say from one […]

  • Mark Barnes

    How about we just eliminate homework and grades completely? Let’s do meaningful activities in class and supply detailed, specific narrative feedback for everything. Tell students what they did right and what they need to improve, and not points and letters are necessary.

    • educationrealist

      I don’t think that would scale, would it? Besides, the same teachers who currently give As to mediocre students and lower grades to strong students would similarly give strong write-ups to the first and negative reviews to the latter.

      And speaking personally, I would not be interested in writing up narratives on my students.

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  • Tim

    I was one of those students who would rarely, if ever, do the HW assignments but then aced the tests every time. I actually failed English one year but scored a 98 on the state test. Thankfully my HS had a rule that if the grade on the state test was better, it replaced your grade for the course. It was a huge scandal for all my hard working but mediocre peers who hated me with a passion from that point on. I am hugely thankful for that policy today because it allowed me to go to a top University and meet professors who taught me things that truly exploded my understanding of everything. If I had failed that class I don’t know what would have happened to me. Why didn’t I do the homework even though I certainly could have? That’s a whole essay on its own. Suffice it to say that the thinking young person has a lot more on his/her mind than whether to complete that essay assignment.


  • On Graduation Rates and “Standards” | educationrealist

    […] How does this happen, you ask? As I’ve said many times: grades are a fraud. […]

  • thequotableyeti

    This means, English teachers, that if a student doesn’t do an assigned essay, you find another way to assess the student.)
    I disagree-essay writing is one of main skills a kid is supposed to take away from 9th grade English. There’s no way to assess whether or not they’ve acquired this skill unless they write the damn thing. I’m not their psychic friend-I can’t pass them because I have a hunch they are smart. Moreover, how can you be an “excellent” student, if you are not doing the work?
    Personally, I weight my grades-tests and writing assignments are worth most and are equal, my homework weight is around 10%, and classwork is almost as much as writing and tests. I like to reward effort, but then again, you’re not going to get an A or a B because you showed up and did your classwork. Despite the low weight of homework, I’ve found that a student who does not do their homework won’t get a B because it means they’re not reading at home, not studying etc. They’re also less likely to write an essay. Big surprise. There’s a few outliers to this, but not many.

    I say all of this as someone who barely graduated from high school-mostly because I never did homework-yet-managed to graduate in the top 2% of my University. You know what? Not doing my homework in high school was a complete waste of my time. It didn’t matter how high I scored on my state tests-I put in no effort, I deserved the grades I received. I worked hard in University, and therefore deserved the grades I received.

    I’ve spent the past few mornings reading your blog entries. While, yes, it’s true cognitive abilities play a role- it’s my impression that you are underestimating the importance of a student’s work ethic. Cognitive ability is malleable and students can make huge leaps. The question is whether or not they are willing to put in the effort and use their brains.
    Sitting in a class for 50 minutes a day is not enough to learn/practice ta subject. That’s where homework/outside activities come in. Maybe they’ll never be Faulkner, but they can at least reach grade level reading. I think my issue is that we(America) expect hardly anything from teenagers. I also think that students are going to school without the expectation that learning,for most people, is hard work.

    • educationrealist

      ” There’s no way to assess whether or not they’ve acquired this skill unless they write the damn thing.”

      The issue is when they write the damn thing. You make them sit down and do it. Most of them will. The ones who flatly refuse and also fails test essays, sure, fail them. That’s a much smaller number.

      ” it’s true cognitive abilities play a role- it’s my impression that you are underestimating the importance of a student’s work ethic.”

      No, I’m not. But when looking at large groups rather than individual results, it’s largely irrelevant.

      ” Cognitive ability is malleable”

      No, it’s not, to any significant degree.

      “and students can make huge leaps.”

      Sure, although those are developmental, not cognitive.

      ” I think my issue is that we(America) expect hardly anything from teenagers. I also think that students are going to school without the expectation that learning,for most people, is hard work.”

      They never signed up for intellectual hard work. In previous years, we didn’t make them–we let them drop out, or take easier classes.

      I’m not into education as morality play.

  • thequotableyeti

    Really, I wasn’t aware that teaching teenagers basic study and life skills constitutes a morality play. Diligent and hardworking students get better grades, regardless of their cognitive ability. I’m surprised that you’d trivialize it. In fact, worth ethic does play a role in whether or not a kid actually shows up to school and does their work that can then be graded, so they can then earn credits and graduate, which is the goal of high school. I’m not talking about “achievement” in the abstract sense of how well they do on an IQ test-but rather – what they are accomplishing day to day, which rests on whether or not they are demonstrating skills. The point you made about students failing because of not doing homework isn’t just about homework, for many students it’s about whether or not they are doing any class work at all. Talking about how and why students work or don’t work isn’t condescending, it’s a necessary discussion-why wouldn’t a student study for an exam? Would you argue that studying has no effect on learning? Are we to assume that every student not working is not up to it cognitively? Can you allow for the possibility that there could be other factors at play?
    It’s not “fraud” to fail students because they are not demonstrating competency. Like I said before, how do I know if a student is competent if I don’t see their work? Moreover, I have never mistaken homework “obedience” for “achievement”, but from reading your post and your response, I don’t think you’re clear about what you mean by “achievement.”
    To some extent-I can buy your argument-and this is mostly because I failed Algebra more than once-I have no idea how I ever passed math, and if you were to ask me to solve an equation with a gun to my head-I don’t know if I could do it. But that’s one subject. I had to work at it because I had/have no aptitude for it, obviously other subjects were easier. My point is I had to learn how to compensate and cope with my limitations; I had to work at it. I disagree with you to the extent that you don’t seem to find a value in students working at things that they are not naturally good at, discounting the possibility that they could ever get better at it. Sometimes you just get a C, sometimes you really get it. Luckily for everyone I’m not an engineer, so no harm done.

    I don’t think the problem is that students are tracked as if everyone is college bound (certainly this is true in theory, but definitely not in practice) but rather that lower tracked classes by other names have every behavioral issue kid lumped in with the perfectly lovely kid who has no interest in AP. The behavioral kids ruin it for everyone. I also think one of the main problems is they’ve cut every technical training class at most high schools.

    I’ll maintain that a formal essay is different from an in class essay, that why the when of writing the damn thing is relevant. It speaks to a student’s competency if they can plan and execute an essay, partially on their own time.

    Actually, particularly in teenage years, intelligence is variable. I must respectfully disagree. Even assuming that you’re right, for teenagers, it’s hard to differentiate what’s developmental and what’s cognitive. That’s the gamble of the American system versus European systems-we bet on late bloomers.

    • educationrealist

      Really, I wasn’t aware that teaching teenagers basic study and life skills constitutes a morality play.

      It is. Ain’t my job to teach life skills. Doing homework is not basic study skills. It’s a teacher expectation.

      You are comparing yourself to low ability kids, and that’s just absurd. You are manifestly high ability, and just someone who struggled with algebra. Not the same thing at all, and thus your comparison pointless.

      That’s the gamble of the American system versus European systems-we bet on late bloomers.

      We aren’t gambling. We are cursed with racial IQ disparities that we can’t afford to recognize.

  • thequotableyeti

    It’s high school-not college-they are teenagers-not adults. In the age group, it’s not just about content, it’s also about learning basic study skills.

    I don’t understand what you think the point of education is if you think it’s impossible for students to work at things and become better at them-which was the point I made, that, by the way, you ignored. Apparently, people of higher IQ just sort of pick things up with no effort and then build CERN, how?

    I realize that you want to say controversial things about the achievement gap, but why be an iconoclast about it? Work does have a role in actual “achievement” (however you define it), if a kid has a high iq and is unwilling to do work-then he has a great future feeling superior to other people as he sits in his mother’s den and plays video games-maybe he can join MENSA.

    Yes, there’s an achievement gap-but IQ plays a minimal role. You’re fond of talking in aggregates-not about individual students-following this logic, an overwhelming number of students, of any race, would be average, that averageness should be reflected in test scores. Which, I’m guessing, is not. Correct me if I am wrong, you seem to think that a vast swath of non white people are impossible to educate, or cannot be expected to achieve even an average level, how is that even statistically possible, when most people are average?

    To address your final point about racial iq disparities, I think at some point you said the “why” of it doesn’t matter. It absolutely matters, it’s absurd to think that it doesn’t-unless you’re arguing for a return to eugenics. Logically, I don’t understand how some asians and whites being genetically intellectually superior to blacks and hispanics makes more sense than the possibility that the test is culturally biased, and therefore, not an objective measure of IQ, that being poor impacts intellectual development, that multiple generations of people being kept from education would also have an impact, or that being a non native speaker of English might have an impact. You’re fond of citing the statistic that socio economically disadvantaged whites score better than other racial groups who are also socio economically disadvantaged- rather than showing white intellectual superiority, doesn’t that show the impact of poverty?

  • John

    As a high school student myself, I can give another big reason homework shouldn’t be a big part of the grade: so much of it is as a result of cheating rather than actual effort. My friends and I would regularly get together, each having done only part of the work, and copy the parts we didn’t do off of each other. It seems like most of the kids do this, and we don’t really think of it as real cheating, much less serious than if someone cheated on the test. I’ve seen people do it pretty blatantly in front of the teachers and I’ve never seen the teachers do anything about it. I think that it’s pretty much expected of us.

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  • Ryan

    Homework helps kids learn, at least when it comes to things like math problems. Or at the least it might prompt them to ask parents to help them understand something. So making homework scores part of the grade is probably a reasonable way to encourage kids to actually do the work.

    What would be nice is if teachers were allowed to accommodate students who don’t really need to do homework to master the material. But that would mean, *gasp*, treating kids unequally for the absurd reason that they’re different.

    I’m afraid I see little solution to the problem.

  • Gregg Anderson

    Ed- really like the site- we’ve engaged in a lot of discussions about your posts. I assume by homework you are referring to “Do problems 5-10 on page 30” Or “answer questions 1-5 on page 60 in America’s History”? I think there’s a distinction to be made between that kind of homework- (largely useless and as pointed out above, subject to cheating) and things like reading and writing major papers? The other thing I found compelling is giving a kid a bad grade for not doing HW- I hate that- I’m in the business of transmitting knowledge, not checking HW. That said- in HS I found math problems as HW to be both annoying and helpful at the same time- I don’t think I could have gotten through math without the practice- Your thoughts?

    • educationrealist

      I’m glad you find the posts useful! As an English and history teacher, I agree that the large projects are in a different category than “do 1-5 on page 50”. When I taught my Humanities class, I broke grades down into three categories: Status, Participation, Project, and Test/Quiz. Status was the “do 1-5 on page 50” stuff, counting for just 10% of the grade. Participation, too, was just 10% of the grade, but it was a way that I could signal to parents that the kids were working or not. “Project” was the big stuff, worth 40%, with tests/quizzes the other 40%.

      So if a kid blew off a project, I’d do various things (with their consent) to make them do it. Like stay in at lunch, or commit to finishing it over spring break, or whatever. I didn’t penalize for late work. What I found is that the breakdown between important and less important stuff made the student more likely to take me seriously when I said “hey, get this done” and over time (it was just one year), kids were less likely to blow off the big stuff.

      In math, I assign homework for two reasons. First, it gives me cover when a kid has told his parents “I don’t get what’s going on in class.” like it’s all my fault. You doing the homework? No? Well,then. Second, when a kid does come to me for help, we have something to work on. Beyond that, I really don’t care.

  • Gregg Anderson

    I meant “we here at our school have engaged in …”

  • Gregg Anderson

    Also I should have made clear- I found your DISCUSSION of giving a kid a bad grade for not doing homework compelling, not the practice itself. Perhaps if I’d done more of my English homework….

  • Gregg Anderson

    Thanks! I look forward to you next posting year! I’ve got several members of our math department reading you as well- I suppose that and a buck fifty’ll get you on the subway…

  • Ballaurena

    And what of the kid with test anxiety? Weighting tests highly just does a different demographic a disservice. Notably I’ve heard that this is a more common problem among minority students.

    Also, it sounds to me like what we have going on is largely a difference in educational philosophy. Should school teachers be teaching morality? It sounds to me like our author thinks “No, stick to academics,” while his/her critic believes something like “Yes, education should be holistic to prepare them for life (or at least a career).” I say for how much or a kid’s life they are in school, they darn better be teaching them some morality/ethics and life skills. If, when, and how much that includes homework, though, is a separate question which I believe should depend on the needs of the student(s).

  • Ballaurena

    I also think our author sees grades more as an end (to get into college, to show off to employers, etc.), while others see them more as a means (to motivate the kids to learn what they can). They can be a tool for either purpose. The real question is who, if anybody, is to say which way is better than the other?

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  • Shurtzse

    Great article!

    I was a student that suffered through high school and college because I didn’t complete my homework. Yet, I could take an exam on the content and score within the upper 10% of the class. I was often met with the comment, “You do amazing on tests. You just need to put in some effort”. I would try hard and start of strong at the beginning of the term, but I just couldn’t bring myself to keep it up. It wasn’t that I didn’t understand the content, I just don’t respond well to repetition and menial tasks. Once I learn something, lets move on to something more complex.

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  • Teachnotpreach

    I don’t agree with what this says at all. Students who complete their assignments score on average higher than the students who do not complete their assignments. Any real and meaningful teacher can prove this with their data on being a reflective teacher. Students can only master the standard and objective by completing assessments.

    • educationrealist

      “Students who complete their assignments score on average higher than the students who do not complete their assignments.”

      On average, sure. But that’s because kids who complete their assignments usually find them easier. There’s plenty of evidence demonstrating that some kids who don’t do homework outscore those that do.

      So the issue is should kids who don’t do homework be penalized by anything more than a lower score on the test than they might have gotten otherwise? And the answer, to me, is no.

  • surfer

    I think one of the issues is lecture versus practice. The professor’s comment on the NYT linked article was telling. I’m SURE she does not have the students actually working/practicing in class. Yet all the pedagoy and common sense says that we learn more from practice than from listening. But in college there is more pressure to “not be like high school” so the professor is on stage giving a talk.

    Of course this differs somewhat by content area. Easier to drill math or foreign language, mixed into lecture, than English or history. But perhaps we need to have English/history teachers strain for ways to incorporate more drill. After all, you are not training graduate students here. And then, it just mixes things up a little more and keeps “engagement” or at least awakeness.

    Note, I was a kid who blew off HW for years despite being smart. And not from being “bored” or above things. I was in strong G/T programs. And I got hammered on grades, including on tests. Once I finally started doing homework, I blew away the classes. However, at that point, I really didn’t need the lectures much. Showing up to calc/chem/zoics classes when you have preread the section AND done every single HW problem means the entire thing is a review. It was still enjoyable as I had entertaining teachers and it is sort of fun to be that on top of the material. But probably not time efficient. For me the things that made me finally start doing work were just growing up, seeing college looming, and starting to play sports (lots of drill and scary coaches).

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