The Pitfalls of Grading Group Assignments

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Dear Extra Credit:

What about the advantages and disadvantages of group assignments, in which everyone is graded according to the final result, not his or her individual contribution?

Time and again, my daughter has been the person who kept such a group project on track, edited team members' work and pulled it all together and submitted it, in addition to writing her section. I do see the value of learning to work in groups, because we so often do in real life. But what is the value of grading on a group report, beyond the obvious one of giving kids an incentive to turn it in?

It seems to me to result in some kids getting a grade based on others' efforts, and some kids getting dragged down when others won't do their share. In the workplace, I find it's usually known and acknowledged who did good work and who didn't pull their weight, but not in schools.

Debbie Stein

Montgomery County

You insightful letter warms my reportorial heart, because it forced me to stir myself and check the facts, producing what is, for this column, big news. According to Montgomery County schools spokeswoman Kate Harrison, group grades have not been a recommended practice for several years. Of course, teachers are used to doing what they think best. My big scoop is that as of July 1, this expectation has been added, in writing, perhaps with italics, in the county grading regulations. The new language says: "Grades must be based on individual demonstration of skill and understanding."

Will that end group grading in Montgomery? I doubt it. Teachers will be less likely to say they are giving grades for group work, but the ones I know have found that, for some students, cooperative projects reveal important skills, such as imagination, leadership and bargaining, for which their final grades will look better than they might otherwise have.

I am interested in the views and experiences of other readers on this tricky issue. Betsy Brown, director of Montgomery's department of curriculum and instruction, said the newly codified rule "does not mean in any way that teachers are discouraged from engaging students in group work. Rather, teachers are encouraged to provide students opportunities to work together, and to learn and apply collaborative skills. The resulting task, product (or component of a product), assignment or assessment, however, must be completed by an individual student and graded based on how it demonstrates an individual student's skill or knowledge."

Dear Extra Credit:

Shortly before I read your comments on spelling ["Hovering or Helping? A Parent Weighs In," June 5), I had gone to work with the student I've been tutoring-mentoring for four years. He has just finishing sixth grade and was very eager to show me his yearbook. I was appropriately (and sincerely) enthusiastic, until I opened it and saw, on the second page, the pictures of two people identified as the "principle" and "vice principle"! Good grief! It was a hardbound, printed yearbook, presumably edited by someone other than the child, and not a model for good spelling or, for that matter, spell-checking in school.

Ginny Johnstone


So what does one say to children when you encounter a misspelling? I am not sure what is the most helpful response. A mild suggestion they might check the word in the dictionary? A firm correction? Experienced teachers and parents need to advise me on this.

Dear Extra Credit:

University of Southern California scholar Stephen D. Krashen has a very long formal argument for the use of "free voluntary reading" for the improvement of all writing skills, including spelling. He cites multiple studies (some dating to the beginning of the 20th century) on spelling improvement during the school year. Basically, you can give the kids a list of spelling words each week and have them take spelling tests every week, or you can just let them read books for fun and do the rest of their classes. They all spell the same at the end of the year.

I've noticed increasing spelling errors in books in recent years. Take a look at your own Washington Post. Hideous things can be found just about any day of the week.

Lucy Alton


Sigh. You speak the truth. I was schooled when spelling was still drummed into children and mourn the fact that financial pressures are cutting back on the time our splendid copy editors have to catch my mistakes. We are all going to have to try harder, but I would not be surprised if the day comes when free-form spelling returns in homage to the romantic Elizabethan years.

Dear Extra Credit:

I am not sure why parents in Loudoun County are so concerned about the mixed-grade classes in which their children might have to be placed, if the schools do not enroll enough students. In Fairfax County, where I grew up, mixed-grade classes were the norm and are still an innovative educational idea that works.

Only in first grade was I not in a mixed-grade class. In some cases, one classroom had three grades. I was guided in lower grades by the older students, and I helped the younger students when I was older. Nothing teaches you the subject better than teaching it to someone else. My elementary school was a differentiated instructional model, even before this phrase was invented.

I went on to take calculus in high school and was accepted, early admission, at the University of Virginia, where I majored in mathematics. I also received a master's degree in management and am a high school math teacher in Loudoun County, so I don't think that mixed-grade classes in elementary school hindered me in any way.

Edie Huffman


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