Ethical Educator

Split the Grading Difference
School Administrator, February 2020

Scenario: The 9th-grade English teacher at the district’s high school has a policy of lowering any late assignments by a full letter grade. One student discovers at midyear that a paper of his has suffered this penalty. The student is certain he submitted the paper, and peers say they saw him deliver it on time. The teacher acknowledges “the possibility of human error on either side” and decides to “split the difference,” lowering the grade by half the usual amount, to a B-minus instead of a C. Is this a fair resolution, and is the teacher’s policy appropriate?

Maggie Lopez: 
The teacher should have the discretion to set expectations for work to be turned in on time in her classroom. The policy is one way to accomplish this. Her willingness to compromise indicates that her goal in implementing this policy is not to “get students,” but rather to have consequences when a student fails to meet a timeline for assignments.

I am curious as to why the student is just now discovering this information mid-year? The student should have known before now about the missing assignment. With today’s technology, I would expect the teacher posted the grade in a student portal that he could access to see how he did on this assignment prior to now. Even if the assignment was turned in hard copy, the student should have known earlier than mid-year the outcome for the assignment. If the teacher failed to return student work in a timely manner, then this policy loses credibility, as she is not acting as a role model for what her policy purports.

Additionally, in our high-tech world, why are assignments not turned in electronically to the teacher rather than in hard copy? This would have allowed the student to show the date the assignment was e-mailed to the teacher and resolved the question of when the assignment was actually turned in.
Max McGee:
“To err is human; to forgive divine.” Alexander Pope was nobody’s fool but even he probably could not anticipate the importance of a teacher today who understands that a key to a teen’s academic success and well-being is having a trusted connection with an authentically caring teacher. Demonstrating trust and respect far outweighs half a point on a paper and the teacher’s investment in this will pay dividends in the long run. That said, if the student submits a late paper in the future, he deserves to be docked because he now has both a deeper knowledge of the policy and the trust of his teacher.

As for the appropriateness of the policy, I have no objections to it provided it is clearly and frequently communicated and understood by all students.
Meira Levinson:
This would not be a fair resolution even if the grading policy were appropriate. Insofar as the policy itself is inappropriate however, the resolution is even less satisfying.

Teachers use grades for many purposes, including to communicate mastery of specific knowledge and skills, to rank-order students and to motivate students to work hard and turn their assignments in on time. Presumably, this teacher lowers late assignments by a full letter grade to achieve the third goal — to motivate students to meet deadlines. She also might justify her grading policy on the first two grounds. She could argue that one of the skills she is always assessing is timeliness. She also could claim it would be unfair to rank-order students by grades if some students had extra time to work on the assignment than others, and so the full-grade demotion re-levels the playing field.

Let’s assume for the moment that these arguments are convincing and that the teacher’s grading policy is therefore justified. Even so, it would not be appropriate for the teacher to “split the difference” and dock the student’s grade when both he and his peers insist he submitted his paper on time. Docking the grade certainly won’t further motivate students to submit their work on time, so it does not satisfy the third goal.
Furthermore, because there is no independent evidence the student did take extra time to work on his paper, docking his work even half a letter-grade will neither communicate his mastery of meeting deadlines nor provide a more just rank-ordering of grades. At the same time, docking his grade will misrepresent his mastery of the knowledge and skills assessed by the paper assignment (other than the deadline). The balance of considerations is thus strongly weighted against docking the student’s grade in the absence of evidence that he turned his paper in late.

In addition, the teacher should strongly reconsider her grading policy. School and district leadership may want to establish some guidelines for all teachers to follow, as well. First, it is unclear the skill or disposition of completing work on time is one that should be assessed (and graded) in every assignment. 

Second, even if it is, it is hard to imagine that timeliness should be assessed on an “all or nothing” basis (e.g. dropping a full letter grade for turning in a paper even an hour late). A sliding scale seems much more appropriate, such as a third of a letter grade for each day the paper is late.  

Third, it is even harder to imagine that timeliness should factor so large in the assessment and calculation of mastery as to be worth a full letter grade.  In a paper on Toni Morrison, for example, students may be assessed on their mastery of figurative language, analysis of character development, use of evidence to support an argument, appropriate paragraphing and other mechanics, paper organization, etc.  The teacher has to combine her assessment of the student’s mastery of all of these different learning goals in calculating a single grade.  It is truly hard to believe that timeliness counts so large in this list that a paper that merits a B on the basis of all of these factors would merit only a C if it were turned in late.  Again, therefore, I would encourage the teacher to shift at the very least to a sliding scale.  

More radically, I might propose that the teacher rethink her approach to grades as rewards and punishments at all — but I will leave that for another column.

Shelley Berman:

Splitting the difference may be effective in negotiating a used car purchase but not in grading student work. First, the teacher’s questioning of the student’s honesty, particularly when other students observed him handing in the work, undermines the relationship that the teacher should want to establish with her students. At the very least, she should demonstrate her trust in and respect for the student and treat the work as if it had been submitted on time. Accepting her potential role in the mistake also shows a level of respect and trust that can strengthen her relationship with students and models how to take responsibility for errors. 

Second, the practice of lowering a grade for lateness is not a productive or appropriate strategy. Grades should be a measure of achievement and communicate to the student, parents, employers and college admissions how well a student mastered the subject. Grades should be linked to learning, not behavior. The quality of student work should take precedence over whether it is punctual. Late-assignment penalties lead to inaccuracies in assessment of mastery and don’t necessarily improve student behavior. 

Lateness is best handled as a separate issue and teachers should work with students to support their timeliness. While we tend to focus on instruction around academics, another aspect of teaching is helping students learn important social, emotional and executive functioning skills. Using a rewards and punishment model for lateness is not the most effective way to teach these skills. Instead, teachers can take an instructional approach by supporting students through check-ins, review of drafts, and other strategies in which teachers monitor progress. Supporting students’ development of executive functioning, self-management and time management is more appropriate and effective in helping to improve timeliness. Teachers also can create incentives for timeliness and making up of late work and provide multiple chances to submit late work without a penalty. They can meet with students who submit late work to provide advice, assistance and support and can engage parents in similar strategies. Instead of merging academic performance with behavior, teachers can provide a separate grade for work habits, post comments about timeliness on the report card, or discuss time management during a parent conference. 

Grading should focus on the quality of work. The teacher should abandon the policy of penalizing late work.

Each month, School Administrator draws on actual circumstances to raise an ethical decision-making dilemma in K-12 education. Our distinguished panelists provide their own resolutions to each dilemma. Do you have a suggestion for a dilemma to be considered? Send it to:

The Ethical Educator panel consists of Shelley Berman, superintendent, Andover, Mass.; Meira Levinson, professor of education, Harvard University, and author of Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries; Maggie Lopez, retired superintendent in Colorado Springs, Colo.; and Glenn "Max" McGee, a former superintendent and regional president of ECRA Group in Schaumburg, Ill.