March 21, 2014 by

The Deflating Effects of Grading Homework

Myron Dueck reflects on an issue he discusses in his article “The Problem with Penalties” in the March 2014 edition of Educational Leadership—why grading homework hurts low-income kids.

Elmag homework in the darkSeveral years ago, I spoke at a conference in Idaho on the topic of grading homework assignments and why teachers might want to avoid this misguided practice. After my session, a teacher approached me. She recounted a meeting in her school concerning a 5th grade boy. This boy came from a farm-laboring family and often had to help his parents pick potatoes after school. He seldom completed his homework, but all his scores on summative assessments were in the passing range—all of them.

The grading regiment for 5th graders in this school placed 50 percent of a student’s final grade on the completion of uniform homework assignments. Although this boy had demonstrated capacity on all learning outcomes, the team decided to hold him back because his final “grade” was just below 50 percent. I tried to fight the decision, but I couldn’t sway the vote,” the teacher recalled with a blend of anger and remorse.

Such deflation of grades because of homework is not reserved for the Gem State. I have bumped into these types of stories all over North America, and the correlation between problems finishing homework and socioeconomic status is inescapable. Teachers, particularly from rural areas, often share with me comments such as this:

“I stopped grading homework when it dawned on me that many of my students were living in RVs with no power. You can’t do your homework in the dark!”

Few could debate that students living in difficult situations suffer a grading hit caused by factors outside their control—and that in many cases these deductions don’t reflect the extent to which these students understand established learning outcomes. Impoverished students who face insurmountable challenges completing homework must look across the room in frustration as richer students bask in their strong completion grades.

A discussion of grading homework in the context of socioeconomic issues is long overdue. Once we acknowledge that grading homework more often than not inaccurately inflates or deflates student grades, perhaps we can do something about this issue.