Where Some Give Credit, Others Say It's Not Due

Homairea Sharifi, left, Kirsten Obermuller, Aubree Garber, Caroline Diloreti, seated, and Kaliah Lewis work with Will Crawford at Robinson Secondary School.
Homairea Sharifi, left, Kirsten Obermuller, Aubree Garber, Caroline Diloreti, seated, and Kaliah Lewis work with Will Crawford at Robinson Secondary School. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Jay Mathews
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 14, 2005

L ike most American teachers, Will Crawford includes credit for effort when he fills out the report cards of his government and history students at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County.

"Grades from assignments indirectly measure effort," he said. "I tell students that as long as they keep up with projects and homework and make an honest effort on tests and quizzes, they won't fail," he said.

Six miles away at West Potomac High School in the same school district, chemistry and physics teacher Stephen Rezendes rejects that approach because he believes it sends the wrong message to students, and is against district policy.

"Rewarding effort and not achievement is not helping the student," he said. "It's basically assuming they can't achieve."

While tests demanded by the No Child Left Behind law measure each school's and each student's progress on the same scale, it is the report cards that students and parents care about most. And report cards are still based, as they have been for generations, on conflicting rules and personal assumptions made by individual teachers.

This is particularly true of the ticklish issue of grading effort. 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.

Official guidelines on grading are often vague, nonexistent or ignored. Giving credit for homework, for instance, is not addressed in the Fairfax High School Teachers Guide, which says only that grades should measure achievement and "do not measure potential or social performance."

One of the most aggressive efforts to eliminate, or at least reduce, grading for effort has occurred in Montgomery County, where a new policy -- still awaiting final school board approval -- limits credit for completing homework for practice to no more than 10 percent of a final grade.

Many teachers say such a policy would rob them of a useful motivating tool.

"I do give frequent homework assignments that are not difficult that help boost their grades," said Anita Shepherd, chairman of the social studies department at Patuxent High School in Calvert County. "My purpose in giving the assignments is to motivate the students to do the necessary reading and analysis so they can master the material."

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