Inequitable Grading Practices: Late Work Penalties

I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers on their late work grading policies. After about a week, 585 responded. A little under half (255) apply some kind of penalty, whether work is accepted through the entire grading term, within some window or not at all after its due date. If we look at this practice from the perspective of grading standards (vs. completion, or whatever else), it can shed light on how inequitable late work penalties are…

Imagine grading a student on meeting a standard. Let’s call that standard “Supporting a Claim.” You’ve got one star student who could do that before they even stepped foot in your class, is always engaged, never absent, and gets done their work on time. A+, right? Then you got a kid who’s basically the opposite. It takes them months to be able to read a text and “support a claim” with enough convincing evidence to confirm they’ve met the goal. They get there, eventually, but all the work is late. All of it. Now, despite meeting the standard, the grading system used by almost half the 585 language teachers would apply a penalty to the latter student, reducing their grade.

Instead of grading the “Supporting a Claim” standard, teachers would be grading the student on something like pace, or meeting deadlines. In the case of the former, just think how ridiculous it would be to say “sorry, Taj, you learned this concept slower than Abi. She gets an A+, but you get a C.” Absurd, right? I don’t know any teacher who would say that, yet a late work penalty has the same result, only in letters and numbers and not words. Grading a student’s pace, and/or timeliness also adds another factor into the equation that could become a double whammy for the student who doesn’t perfectly meet the standard, either. Perhaps the student inconsistently shows signs of “supporting a claim,” a grade of B according to the rubric. The late work penalty would then artificially lower the grade to C or D (or F?). This is a classic case of policies that place obstacles in the way of students who already struggle. That is, students who already aren’t meeting standards are then hit with an additional penalty, keeping them down.

Granted, it’s probably the case that most teachers with late penalties aren’t grading according to standards at all, so this inequity isn’t really exposed. Instead, the student who does “the work” according to the teacher’s timeline is considered the one who gets the A+ (or whatever), and the student who doesn’t, gets something else. I didn’t ask everyone for details as to the loss of credit, but what I read runs the gamut, with the student getting a 0, 25%, 50%, 75% or whatever percentage of full credit.

Tracking But Not Solving
Late penalties also fall under the category of policies that track some kind of issue, but have little impact on the problem they’re intended to solve. For example, our school had a behavior management system in which students were issued demerits for not following certain rules. I started collecting schoolwide data and exposed that all we were doing was documenting behavior, not changing it. The students who broke rules suffered consequences yet didn’t learn from those consequences. The same is typically true with late penalties. The only students for which a late penalty works to meet deadlines are the only students it works for. That is, it doesn’t work for the rest of the students already struggling with time management, and/or content knowledge. This is what makes the policy inequitable. The students who do work on time don’t need the policy, and the policy doesn’t get students to do work on time.

There were also concerns that eliminating a late penalty would “ensure” more work for the teacher at the end of the grading term. I have no further comment other than to recommend giving it a try, and/or reach out to the teachers who have ditched late work penalties entirely—the majority of those who responded—to ask how their experience has been. I can report that I don’t even mention the word “due date,” students still learn, and I have no additional work beyond my daily/weekly gradebook updates at the end of term. Of course, I’ve set up my grading so that’s not even a factor. See this post on how to avoid it altogether.

Next Steps
Will all 255 teachers read this and update their grading policies to be more equitable? Probably not, and that’s not anyone’s expectation, either. Teachers typically don’t change something unless the impetuous comes from within. For example, no one’s gonna convince an output-heavy language teacher to suddenly scale back and instead provide more input. That only happens when the teacher notices some kind of issue with asking students to produce language beyond their ability, or when investigating some other factors that lead to output as the culprit. For many, late work policies appear to be “working out well,” just like output, so teachers have no reason to question them. This doesn’t mean late work penalties are not inequitable. It just means teachers aren’t addressing that inequity.

11 thoughts on “Inequitable Grading Practices: Late Work Penalties

  1. I think that you missed the point of motivating students to do the work. Even if a teacher takes points away for late work, you didn’t ask if there were retakes for full credit. That really gets to the heart of the “some kids take longer to learn.” What I have found in the last 27 years is that lately kids are just not doing work and not trying to learn it. If there is no deadline, they don’t seem to think they should have to learn it. We have enabled kids to be procrastinators. Then they go off to college are feel blind-sided because colleges take off points or don’t accept late work. (my district accepts late work for full credit up until the end of the semester)

  2. I did not answer your poll because the options did not make sense to my teaching context. Most of my students’ grade is based on the results of a daily exit quiz. If a student is not in class, there is no grade recorded and no make-up needed… how could I grade them on understanding a conversation that they did not participate in? We move on with our lives and have a different conversation in class the following day, with another daily exit quiz. This system isn’t perfect: I am not keeping track of students meeting standards at all. Instead, my grading system simply relies on the belief that if a student is engaged with the target language, they will acquire at the rate that their brains are capable of acquiring. The daily exit quiz keeps students engaged for meaning, and as long as I design my exit quizzes so that all students pass (even better if all are getting everything correct), then the daily exit quiz has served its purpose. I think the idea that we can motivate students to “study” languages and work hard is flawed; an easily understood conversation with rich input provides everything students need to acquire. If we teachers learn to make our teacher language both rich and easy to understand, students at all levels soak in and acquire without the threat of explicit grammar assessments. That’s been my teaching experience. I feel like I am so out of step with the profession!

      • I suppose you’re right, and I’m in a similar boat. I list assignments, but none of them directly affect a grade. Students can complete past ones in the gradebook at any time, though, so I have no late penalties. For anything that’s totally class-dependent, like your exit tickets, I exempt a student from them and also mark the assignment as “absent” in the gradebook. That data can be even more helpful to point to. I also wouldn’t expect a student to set their own timer and write for 5 minutes. Those gradebook assignments just kind of sit there. No penalties, though.

  3. My assignments have due dates, but no late penalties. I accept work for full credit until the last day of the term because ultimately I want students to do the work. The due dates are supposed to help keep students working throughout the term and avoid a mountain of assignments at the end. This works for most but not all students. Some students are chronic late submitters, and not all of them are “slow learners”. Often, these students have not even attempted the assignments despite reminders from Canvas, personal emails and verbal reminders.

    As a middle school teacher, I am teaching study skills and habits as well as the language. We work on strategies to take ownership of work, improve time management, overcome procrastination, etc. I often take inspiration from Angela Duckworth’s Character Lab. These skills and habits may be lifelong challenges for some. Behavior may be very slow to change, but I can’t give up. I have to help students put strategies into practice before they get to high school.

    Sometimes, I wonder if I should assess a chronic late penalty to the final grade as a life lesson. There are real penalties – social, emotional, financial – for not meeting deadlines in high school, university, jobs and relationships. Ultimately, there is no easy answer for me. I’m looking for flexibility and nuance depending on the needs of the individual students.

    This summer, I am participating in Modern Classroom’s Summer Institute. I love the idea of moving to a self-paced instructional model. Hopefully, that will provide some insight.

    • Don’t do it. For every “real penalty” we can think of, there are just as many exceptions. I’m advocating for this at the high school level, and almost every college professor extends deadlines for a variety of reasons (it’s just that most students don’t think to ask). In the workplace, well, there are only a handful of jobs that actually have consequences for being late or missing deadlines. Grading deadlines does not cause humans to meet deadlines later in life.

  4. If you won’t penalize students who turn late work in, you accomplish the reverse: no reward for students who turn their work in on time. It is my belief that this is not fair to the students who follow the rules. Absent standards that include timeliness, students become the arbiters of what is acceptable and what is not. Students today already tend to be “entitled.” They are not, and they have a big shock coming in the outside world if you treat them this way in High School. Schools set the rules, not students, and teachers follow the rules. So should the students.

    • Well, me and the researchers looking at grading with equity in mind disagree with you entirely.

      Are you looking at this through the lens of equity, or something else?

      1) The first flaw is thinking of grades as rewards instead of a reflection of learning. There’s literature on the negative affects of treating grades as payment for work done. “Belief” is the operative word there in your comment.

      2) “Entlitled” is word loaded with bias. I’m not interested in the “kids these days” arguments.

      3) You sure about following rules? When was the last time an exception was made for a teacher who needed to leave early or come in late? How often are all teachers on time for meetings, or taking attendance, or submitting grades (or even updating the gradebook within a reasonable time)? I’m not sure what “outside world” you’re imagining, but nearly everything in life comes with reasonable extensions.

      Aside from the equity issue of establishing late penalties, there’s the ultimate truth that students learn far more than what we grade. We don’t *have* to include something in the grade for students to learn it. Therefore, the skills you’re thinking of can still be taught. In fact, removing obstacles, like late penalties, makes learning more effective.

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