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.

17 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.

  5. Please help. I used SBG for the first time for the 2021-22 school year. I teach a Theology class for high school seniors. I liked that students were able to revise work and tests. I believe this emphasized that learning is most important. What I did not like is that students waited until the end of the semester to turn in a lot of missing assignments (assignments that were never turned in on the due date in the first place). I also observed a lot of copying when students turned in several assignments all at once at the end of the semester. I believe the temptation to copy was great when the student had a lot of assignments to do and their grade was lower than they wanted it to be. I was frustrated about the lack of not turning in assignments because time was provided in class for students to do the assignments that I was assigning for a grade. This means that students were not using their time wisely in class. I also believe when a student does not do an assignment when assigned and waits to the end of the semester they are not learning as effectively what they need to know to move on in the class. So, I am thinking that I want to only allow for revisions if a student makes a good faith effort to complete the assignment and turns the assignment in on time. The student that does not turn in any assignment is given a 50% grade and no option to revise or turn it in later. If a student is using their time in class well and still is not finished, they can turn in what they have and I will grade it and then they can finish what they did not complete as if it is a revision. I believe this practice is equitable because I am providing the slower worker/learner the opportunity to finish the work and I am not penalizing this student. I also believe it is equitable because I am not rewarding a student that does other work in my class when I have asked them to complete my assignment. I also thought about only accepting revisions and retakes one week after a unit has ended to avoid having a student not turn anything in all semester and then at the end of the semester turn in the assignments. I like this idea of deadlines after each unit because units build on each other and assignments provide evidence of the student learning. I fear that student that turns in few assignments is not learning in the order they should be learning to assure the best comprehension of the material. I would appreciate any thoughts or if anyone has had similar experiences, how it was handled. Thanks so much!

    • Naw, don’t do that. If students can turn in all the assignments at the end of the grading term, how important and/or robust were those assignments in the first place? Sounds like students were just getting graded on completion, and the assignments were fast and easy to complete. Otherwise, waiting until the last minute (if fully capable the whole term) would be a massive amount of work, and likely lower quality, right? If you feel the assignments are necessary scaffolding, one thing to do is not grade them. Instead, grade *assessments* based on the requisite assignment content, and you’ll know. It’s the same concept as skipping the vocab quiz. What’s the vocab used for? Go straight to that assessment and you’ll know if kids know what the terms mean.

      If, however students simply didn’t give you learning evidence *during* the grading term, that’s on you (and all of us) to show that they’re not meeting the standards when there’s time for them to do something about it. I update grades weekly. If students aren’t providing necessary evidence and aren’t meeting expectations, they have a 50%. EZ.

      re: deadlines, teachers setting deadlines for students is laughable considering how many teachers turn in grades/comments in late, show up to meetings late, are weeks or months behind on curricular documents, never submit attendance, etc. There are very few hard deadlines in life, and grading students on whether they meet them has almost no rationale. Shift focus to learning (not grades), and the rest will follow.

    • Also, what were you doing while time was given in class to do assignments? Not all kids are independent learners yet. Sure, we could sit at our desk, or walk around and be like “hey man, it’s your choice to not do the work,” but we’re actually not supporting students when we do that.

      • Thanks for your comments. You have given me some things to consider. My students are involved in a long term PBL that involves group work that ends in each group creating a NPO. Most of the assignments not turned in involve reading text and answering questions that give the students foundational knowledge needed to contribute to the decisions the group is making for the PBL. Each group is reading text particular to their group. There are seven groups per class period and I have seven classes. I do not consider this text reading assignment busy work if done at the time it is assigned because the knowledge is needed to contribute to the group work and discussion. I do think the assignment is less effective and really useless if done at the end of the semester. Some assignments are reflections about what was learned and what the student did to contribute to the group progress for that week – so if this is not done in class at the end of the week, it is difficult to recreate this information at the end of semester. I think that this weekly reflection of involvement and the text reading assignment should not be allowed to be turned in at the end of the semester. This is why I am contemplating if I should require that these assignments be turned in on time if the student would like credit for it.

      • I don’t know what an NPO is.

        What standard is being graded, though? If the only way to receive credit is turning in an assignment on time, that’s not SBG unless the standard is “completes classwork on time.” I think you’ve got a couple things going on. First, students who delay reading the text and responding to questions aren’t invested in the content. Or, they can participate in the group discussion without doing the content. This would be like assigning and grading homework when you got a kid who does none of it but excels at the quizzes or tests. Next, refusing to participate in class is more of a behavior issue, not academic. If kids are just sitting there when they’re supposed to be reading & responding, something’s going on. Holding them hostage by attaching a grade to that work is not the answer.

        If students are supposed to read & respond before the group discussion, are you assessing/grading the group discussion? If so, the reading & responding assignment that some students are putting off until the end of the semester is embedded in the discussion, right? Still sounds like you’re treating the read & respond like a vocab quiz (i.e., skip it and assess what you *do* with the knowledge, which in this case is the group discussion).

      • (A NPO is a Non-profit Organization.) Thanks for responding. Your thoughts have been helpful and are making me think about how I should handle this. Thanks again!

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