Like 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."
Brad Hopewell, who teaches social studies and theory of knowledge at Benjamin Banneker Academic High School in the District, said: "If a student is having a difficult time but works hard and puts forth a great deal of effort, I think that real-life skill should be rewarded. I frankly do not see how struggling students will be motivated to succeed if there are not some short-term rewards for their struggles."
Jaime Escalante, the Advanced Placement calculus teacher who inspired the film "Stand and Deliver," said he also raised grades for effort when he taught at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles. "If the kid put in a lot of hard work, I had to recognize that," he said by telephone from Bolivia, where he is semi-retired. "And if you put in a lot of effort, you're going to learn something."
But many teachers said their experience has been different. Better grades for showing up and turning in homework, they said, keep students from doing what is necessary to master the material.
"I think this has been a particular problem in some of the middle schools in the past," said David Stein, who teaches AP calculus and AP statistics at Montgomery Blair High School in Montgomery County. "It has resulted in some ninth-graders coming to high school expecting to pass their classes without actually learning anything."
Karen Gruner, who teaches chemistry at St. John's Literary Institute at Prospect Hall in Frederick County, said: "One of life's tough lessons is trying hard and failing. It does no kid anywhere any good to give grades based on trying hard or behaving nicely because sooner or later they hit the wall of not having the knowledge the grade implied."
Julie Greenberg, who also teaches math at Montgomery Blair High, said she, like Stein, agrees with her county's plan to reduce the effect of effort in the grading system. "My guiding principle in teaching is that telling the truth about mastery is the best thing I can do for now," she said. "We're way too new at this process of finally trying to evaluate mastery to stop in our tracks and encourage grading that blurs effort and mastery."
There is little conclusive research on grading practices, although one study by Lucas and University of Florida economist David N. Figlio indicated that Florida elementary school students showed more improvement on state tests if they had teachers who were tough graders. The researchers noted that tougher grading had no effect on students whose achievement levels were extremely low, and the study did not cover high schools.
Lucas said he thinks the solution is one grade on the report card for achievement and a separate grade for effort. This appears to be working in many elementary schools, but in high school it might bring arguments about which grades would figure into the grade-point average sent to colleges.
Clif Tramel, who teaches AP English literature at Weatherford High School in Weatherford, Tex., said he can persuade more students to stay in his challenging class if he does not grade them as harshly as some of their work deserves. That helps them, he said, because the alternative would be for them to drop down to a much easier class.
Hopewell said the same technique worked for him last year when a student who received a C for effort the first semester suddenly blossomed. "He began to build on the foundation that effort alone had built," he said. "By the third quarter, he had an A and was showing signs of real brilliance."
It just goes to show, Hopewell added, that "if students are motivated throughout the process of learning and graded for effort, you're more likely to see better end results."