The knowledge grade

Standards-based grading — has Johnny mastered the subject matter — is replacing the behavior-based grading — does Johnny do homework and write legibly? — at some schools, reports the New York Times. Teachers at Ellis Middle School in Austin, Minnesota realized their grades didn’t reflect learning for all students.

About 10 percent of the students who earned A’s and B’s in school stumbled during end-of-the-year exams. By contrast, about 10 percent of students who scraped along with C’s, D’s and even F’s — students who turned in homework late, never raised their hands and generally seemed turned off by school — did better than their eager-to-please B+ classmates.

“Over time, we began to realize that many teachers had been grading kids for compliance — not for mastering the course material,” (Principal Katie) Berglund said. “A portion of our A and B students were not the ones who were gaining the most knowledge but the ones who had learned to do school the best.”

The middle school now bases grades on subject mastery; no longer will donating a box of Kleenex to the class win extra credit points. The high school has switched for ninth graders.

When parents of students at Ellis Middle School look over their children’s report cards, they will find a so-called “knowledge grade,” which will be calculated by averaging the scores on end-of-unit tests. (Those tests can be retaken any time during the semester so long as a student has completed all homework; remedial classes that re-teach skills will be offered all year.) Homework is now considered practice for tests. Assignments that are half done, handed in late or missing all together will be noted, but will not hurt a student’s grade. Nor will showing up late for class, forgetting to bring your pencil, failing to raise your hand before shouting out an answer or forgetting to bring in a permission slip for the class trip — infractions that had previously caused Ellis students’ grades to suffer.

(In addition to an academic grade, the 950 students at the school will get a separate “life skills” grade for each class that reflects their work habits and other, more subjective, measures like attitude, effort and citizenship. )

Some parents object to grading policies that downplay homework completion, saying students won’t develop strong work habits.

About Joanne


  1. This is not new. I’ve been writing about this since the mid 1980s, as did Ted Sizer (see Horace’s Compromise, 1985). Denis Pope wrote about this in the late 1990s, in Doing School.

    I’m sure others have hit this, too. Heck, just ask any bored smart kids.

  2. Reminds me of my middle brother. He always aced tests (one year he scored the highest of any kid in any grade in the entire district on the state test) but barely graduated high school because he refused to do any assignment he considered “busywork”. And for all the concerns about “work habits”, he’s done well in his chosen career field.

  3. I give test scores 75% of the grade, classwork 15%, and homework 10%–but in practice, classwork and homework can only tilt your grade up (no more than half a grade), not down.

    In English and history, I designated some projects as “perfomance” and some as “status”, with performance being weighted the same as tests (40%). But if you missed a performance assignment, I browbeat you until you turned it in–none of this “one grade down if a day late, an F if two days late”. But that was with a joint curriculum–I doubt I’d have many status assignments in a class of my own.

    Of course, the teacher can just make the tests easier.

    I believe all teachers should do this, but the homework issue is a big hot button. What I’d rather do is take grading entirely out of the teacher’s hands and have state-wide tests–but the tests would have to have a great deal more granularity to make sure that we’re capturing the low end ability students.

  4. A lack of any true understanding of how to assess and the value of assessment is the greatest weakness in education programs around the country. Teachers graduate and take over classes and start assigning grades without adequate knowledge on the nature and applicability of assessments. You have to put that on school administrators, too, who just hire them and cut them loose.

  5. I do psycho-educational evaluations for a large school district. In grad school, we were taught that teacher grades were the least likely to reflect anything other than behavior.

    We test for reading, math and writing levels. Can’t trust the teacher grades, at any level.

  6. I managed to skate through high school doing almost no homework, except what I could complete while the teacher was lecturing, or otherwise not preventing me from doing it. I would always ace tests, and so I would get between As and Cs, depending how heavily the grade weighted tests versus homework.

    Then I got to college. Some things still came easily to me, but having not had much practice writing 5-page papers, I wasn’t always so good at putting together a paper which demonstrated my knowledge of the subject matter. Almost too late, I realized that in some subjects, I would need to actually do the homework to learn the material – that listening to the lectures wasn’t enough. Even where the homework counted for trivial amounts of the grade, I nearly failed out of classes where I didn’t do the homework because I hadn’t learned the material well enough to test well on it.

    In life after school, what matters isn’t what you know, but what you do. What you know is an element of what you do, but it’s not the only element. Grading should take into account completed work as well as knowledge.

  7. Crimson Wife, your brother is my son.

    We need some linear studies — how do the super-smart, free-thinking, non-complaint rule-breakers do in later life vs. the compliant, cooperative, diligent rule-followers?

  8. Michael E. Lopez says:

    I’m curious, Caroline, what you mean when you say that we should measure how someone “does” in life? Are we going to reduce it to pure economics? Are we going to do psych evals? Happiness surveys? Ask their friends how much they are loved? Ask how many of their big goals they’ve accomplished?

    You could use money as the measure of how they do, and probably get most people to agree that this is a good measure — but the intelligent, independent, unbroken types have already by this point demonstrated that they’re not really playing the same game as everyone else.

  9. I don’t think it makes sense to eliminate consequential homework if 90% of the non-homework-doers aren’t mastering the material and 90% of the homework-doers are (at least in the one school mentioned at the top of the excerpt).

    Instead, how about creating homework that’s interesting and that actually helps the child learn the standard? I think that even if it’s merely “busywork,” homework is essential for teaching a child how to regulate his or her time, see something through to completion, postpone leisure until work is done, etc. Colleges and graduate schools aren’t likely waiving their “homework” any time soon, after all.

    There’s gotta be a better way to accommodate the very small minority of non-homework-capable bright kids than doing away with homework altogether.

  10. I suppose I’m more cynical than the norm.

    I wonder who’s doing the homework of the A and B students who couldn’t pass the state tests? Hmmm? Maybe, it’s the interest group protesting the addition of a “knowledge grade”?

  11. If the homework assigned isn’t helping the student learn the material or acquire the skill, what’s the point? Isn’t there any common sense left in the world?

  12. Bob: exactly. Compliance should lead to skill acquisition.

  13. “There’s gotta be a better way to accommodate the very small minority of non-homework-capable bright kids than doing away with homework altogether.”

    There is no such thing as being non-homework-capable. There are, however, individuals who fail to see the consequences of their actions and are able to rationalize their failures.

  14. “There are, however, individuals who fail to see the consequences of their actions and are able to rationalize their failures.”

    There also many bright children who do a form of cost-benefit analysis and see that the busywork has minimal returns relative to the time and effort input. Like any “job”, there has to be a connection between work and reward – and if the grade benefit isn’t there then make sure there is some other motivator at play.

  15. CarolineSF says:

    Michael Lopez, you’re correct — it’s pretty hard to use data to assess anyone’s “success.” For my own information, I’d rather see the anecdotal picture.

    Bob and Lightly Seasoned, what if homework helps some students with skill acquisition but makes no difference to others, who don’t need homework to help them with skill acquisition?

  16. Colleges and graduate schools aren’t likely waiving their “homework” any time soon, after all.

    In college and graduate school, there isn’t remotely as much “busywork” as there is at the K-12 level. In the college math & science courses I took, the weekly problem sets were optional. Students could do as many or as few problems as they felt they needed to prepare for the exams (upon which the entire grade for the class rested). In the humanities classes, there was typically a handful of papers max (sometimes only a single term paper) rather than superficial “let’s write a daily journal where we talk about how the book we’re reading as a class makes us *FEEL*” nonsense.

    My brother did well in college. He was perfectly capable of completing the high school assignments he chose to boycott- he simply felt they were a waste of his time and didn’t care that his GPA suffered as a result.

  17. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Count me among the people who outright refused to do lameass busywork in high school.

    I paid the price for my freedom, but it was worth it.

  18. Well, after reading all these anecdotes, I am even more staunchly opposed to doing away with graded homework.

    If these piercingly brilliant, can’t-tame-me iconoclasts don’t have boring homework to blow off, then what will they have to rebel against? Don’t you see? If no one’s homework counts, then the rebels become just like everyone else, destined to a dreary life of compliance and servitude.

    (Of course, the brilliant rebels would probably then BEG their teachers for busywork homework, and lots of it, just because they’re brilliant and rebellious like that.)

    Crimson Wife, just to be clear, my preferences, in order, are: 1. Interesting, well-crafted homework that’s integrated with standards; 2. Crappily designed busywork; 3. no homework at all (which for a high schooler is the exact same thing as homework that won’t be graded). The reason I prefer 2 to 3 is that I believe doing homework prepares high schoolers for the staggering amount of self-directed work they’ll need to do in college outside of the classroom (which is what I meant by ‘homework’ in that context, not nightly problem sets or mini essays).

  19. I’m going to put myself in another class of student. I got mediocre grades, did only the absolutely required to pass the class assignments, and studied only in the hallway prior to the test. I was too busy partying to worry overly much about grades. I did reasonably well on my SAT’s and went to a pretty good 4-year college. I wasn’t rebelling against the lameness of the busywork; I was just lazy and uninterested. And there were no negative repercussions. My parents cared not at all – never even looked at my report cards. When it *counted* I did pretty well. Kids know when it matters and when it really doesn’t.

  20. There is far too much pointless homework in the school system today. I was raised in another country; a country that rates in the top five for English, Math, and Science in the PISA testing. My country had a polilcy of no homework , or occasional important homework only, in elementary, middle, and junior high schools. In regular high school, homework was to be no more than one half hour per subject . It was rarely assigned, except for major term projects. We had only four classes per day in high school, with 80 minute periods, alternate days. The longer classes gave teachers time to actually teach the subject, and homework was not necessary. Here, with my children, 8 periods of 40 minutes each, are crammed into each day, leaving very little time to teach the subject, and shuffling off most of the practice for homework.

    Countries that score well in PISA all have policies reflecting minimal homework. All homework does is turn kids off of learning. They hate it, and when they get it at an early age, they learn to hate school, dread new topics, and tune their minds out.

    Part of the push to all this homework is coming from parents, who think homework will make their child more successful in life. It won’t. It will teach them to be a mindless robot who can comply, but it will not give them the joy of being able to reason , the thrill of seeking out new knowledge for the pleasure of it, and the abillity to use that knowledge in different situations that were not covered by the textbook.

    The system needs revamped, but homework is not the answer. Longer classes would help, and so would a societal mindset that honors learning for the great adventure that it is. No child starts school bored and unhappy, but by third grade, a majority hate school and have stopped learning. Homework is also a huge cause of family stress. Kids do not learn well, while being yelled at by mom or dad for not finishing homework.