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.
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.