A for effort

Should a student’s grades reflect achievement only, or should teachers give credit for effort? In the Washington Post, Jay Mathews looks at the question:

Teachers frequently ask themselves: If a student does all the homework, listens in class but averages a D on tests, should hard work result in at least a C? Or does that render grades meaningless and make it less likely the student will master the material?

Mel Lucas, an expert on grading who is director of research and assessment for the school board of Alachua County, Fla., said a national effort is underway to ensure that grades measure only academic achievement and keep effort out of the calculation.

This, he said, grows out of concern over “the quality of the workforce and the future of our country.” Some critics, he said, say that “children are coming out of high school not as well educated as their parents” and that one of the culprits is a grading system that lets them slide through school if they do what they are told, even if they don’t learn much.

One study showed “Florida elementary school students showed more improvement on state tests if they had teachers who were tough graders.”

About Joanne


  1. You bet I give that student a C. Look, in the real world this kid is not going to college, not going to be an engineer. This kid is going to get a job where he needs to listen and pay attention, do all that is asked, show up. This kid has the attitude to be successful at his or her level. Reinforce it.
    I’ve been doing this for over forty years and have no regrets.

  2. A slight skew based on effort is fine, particularly in the earlier grades and weighted less heavily for older kids. It reinforces effort while still making clear the results are what matters.

    How much is a ‘slight’ skew? Probably not more than one letter grade.

  3. Mr. Davis says:


    soon you will no longer have to carry the weight of the world on your shoulders. By training America’s students to live in an unreal fantasy world, not unlike the unreal fantasy world of public schools, you have given the Japanese, Chinese, Indians, and anyone else who wants to achieve instead of try, the opportunity to surpass us. I am sure the founders would be proud of your effort. I just hope the next hegemon is as benign.

  4. Gosh Davis, I did not realize that rounding some poor hard working but not too bright kid’s D up to a C would bring us to our knees before the dreaded Yellow Peril. I’ll mend my ways immediately.

  5. Carl Larson says:

    One positive for grading for effort is that the effort a student puts the class in is pretty well correlated to his/her achievement on tests.

    Since I’m a geeky math teacher, I run regression analyses comparing a student’s homework grade (effort) vs. their test grade (achievement). The graphs show an obvious correlation. One of my classes this year (a limited English freshman Algebra class) has a correlation coefficient of 0.78. This is pretty typical for my classes.

    So I don’t have a problem having homework as a significant component of a students grade. I am confident, and have the data to show, that homework completion is strongly related to test performance.

    Sure, there are a couple of students in every class whose homework grade pulls up a low test score. They have probably been copying their homework from their classmates all year, and their test grades suffer for it.

    But there are also a couple of students in every class whose test scores don’t reflect their real capabilities. They are usually bad testers – they don’t know how to take tests, have test anxiety, can do work accurately but not under time pressure, etc. So these students are helped by the homework/effort portion of the grade.

    Grading for effort help some kids that don’t deserve it. But it helps some kids that do.

  6. Ross the Heartless Conservative says:

    I am in the pro-reward effort camp with atlas and photo but I will add that I also take into account whether or not the course is required. If someone wants to take an elective course just for the joy of learning then I am a lot more likely to reward their effort than if they are taking a required course.

    As has been pointed out above, the effort requirements should be of more than a trivial nature though but that is getting more to the point of is the teacher competent.

    For what it is worth, has anyone ever heard of an employer who considers a “C” as evidence of an advanced knowledge of a particular subject matter?

  7. Oh look, the wings just fell off my airplane. It’s OK, though. I know the engineer TRIED to get the design right.

    Failure is a part of life. Trying hard and not making the cut means you did not try hard enough or you should try something different.

    I had an engineer working for me that tried harder than anyone else to get his job done. It was fruitless. He just did not “think” like an engineer. I begged management to fire him for his own good. I was called cold and callous — the man had a family and kids in school…

    When industry took a down turn this man was laid off. It was the best thing that ever happened to him. He found a job as a system administrator at a small company. The last I heard he is running his department and is making twice what he would have had he not been told he did not make the cut.

  8. Walter E. Wallis says:

    Atlas, did you also downgrade those who didn’t laugh at your jokes or support your candidate?

  9. They’ll never know who my candidate is, Walter, but failing to laugh at my jokes is a serious infraction and even good test scores won’t save them.

    Seriously though, the Post article compares a history and government teacher who rewards effort with a chemistry and physics teacher who does not. I agree with that in the upper level hard sciences. History and government, now we are talking a more subjective kettle of fish when it comes to grading. As Heartless says, it depends. I stand by my original post and it being the best course of action for a lot of kids. A good teacher knows who those kids are.

    For those of you who didn’t read the article, read it and see if you get the giggles like I did when they refer to someone as an ‘expert on grading’.

  10. Wouldn’t it make more sense to set a threshold for required knowlege of a given subject– perhaps equivalent to an A- or B level– and then require all students to meet this threshold before progressing to the next level of instruction?

  11. Let’s turn this upside down:

    Back in my school days, bright young punk that I was, I could generally manage an A in math and foreign-language classes without so much as glancing at the homework. My grades were routinely marked down, which I protested vigorously since I was being penalized — in my mind — for dodging mindless busywork.

    In retrospect, of course, the teachers were right to push me to develop the habit of putting in the effort. It just took me until serious college calculus to realize that doing the homework counted a lot in whether you could grasp the material.

    So these genuinely hard-working kids — who are undoubtedly frustrated — deserve props and encouragement for their efforts. Not an A instead of a D, but a C — why not?

    It may be that they need to find a field where their natural talents are rewarded, but the habit of hard work pays dividends no matter where the kid ends up.

  12. “Not an A instead of a D, but a C — why not?”

    How about a lollipop or a gold star. Or better yet, a bumper sticker proclaiming the students academic achievements? Of course every kid at my children’s elementary school got a bumper sticker and the meaning was so diluted that no one bothered to even put them on their cars. So, what next, two bumper stickers or perhaps a C+ or a B-?

    There are, or should be, crisp, subjective criteria for determining grades. When I went to school my grades were based on homework, tests and graded in-class work. Citizenship or class participation were “graded” with Unsatisfactory, or Satisfactory. 70% was a C and 69% was a D. No arguments. Of course that was so long ago my teachers often went to lunch carrying clubs and ate their kills raw. A lot has changed in 40 years.

    If you don’t earn what you receive, you get what we have in society now. In the 80’s it was called the “Me Generation”. Now it’s the “Give Me” generation. I see more and more people that expect a home (in a good neighborhood), a top-dollar job, a car or an education but I see no realization that they actually are expected to earn it. They just DESERVE it.

    So why not just bump that D to a C? Not because they don’t deserve it, but because they did not EARN it.

  13. I am a high school math teacher as well and I agree with the fact that effort that rounds up grades in the math and science categories is not good for the kid.

    This is why I do not grade homework. Too many kids copy and it inflates the grades. I give my kids a speech at the beginning of the year that basically states that math is like football or any other extracurricular activity. You don’t get graded on the practice, you get graded on the performance. So I let the kids grade their own homework and get instant feedback, then weight at least 90% of the average on quizzes and tests. (The rest comes from homework collected and graded for completion on test day; otherwise, parents get upset as to why their kids are doing homework and it’s not being checked.) I’ve done this for almost 15 years and it has saved my sanity and gives me and the kids a much better picture of what they really know.

  14. trotsky says:

    I agree that the grading criteria should be clear and consistent. I guess I disagree that those criteria should be exclusively based on tests. JJ’s excerpt says “If a student does all the homework, listens in class but averages a D on tests, should hard work result in at least a C?”

    If the tests were, say, 75 percent or 90 percent of the grade but homework counted for the rest, that hard work could easily bump up the grade with no fudging.

  15. Richard Nieporent says:

    I had a student in graduate school who was incensed that he did not get at least a B in the class. After all, he argued, he had showed up for all of the classes and done all of the homework. (He had gotten a D on both the midterm and the final exam.) Needless to say, I was not very impressed with his argument. In fact, I had to restrain myself from saying things that would be considered inappropriate for polite company.

    Homework counts for 20% of the student grade in my classes (I teach computer science). The main reason I grade the homework is to “force” the students to do it to help them understand the course material. I have found that there is a very strong correlation between homework performance and test results. Students with low test grades also have low homework grades. And no, I do not believe in rewarding a student for effort.

  16. nailsagainsttheboard says:

    This is not a difficult issue in elementary or middle schools, where there are at least two grades–achievement and effort– for each subject graded on the report card.

    My homework assignments are the practice of skills/concepts learned at school, so it is a crucial component of the curriculum I teach. I view completing homework the same way a coach would view practice time for a particular sport–no room for slackers. The most fundamental part of the education contract between the teacher, student and parents is at MINIMUM, a ‘good faith’ effort.

  17. Reginleif says:

    “Of course every kid at my children’s elementary school got a bumper sticker and the meaning was so diluted that no one bothered to even put them on their cars.”

    A few weeks ago, I saw a sticker that said, “My child earns honor grades at…” (emphasis mine) Now that might be as much b.s. as the “My child is an honor student” stickers, but I wonder if some kids who actually earn their grades, and their parents, are tired of the egalitarian crapola.