Inequitable Grading Practices: Homework & Zeros

Like grades, homework in school is just as expected as yellow buses, questionable cafeteria lunch, rank & file desks, band, and of course, football. Homework is such a part of school culture that it’s hardly given a second thought by the teachers who assign it. I’m sure there’s the following definition somewhere, too:

teacher (n.) = Overqualified and underpaid professional who assigns homework over vacation

Unlike using the lens of standards-based grading (SBG) to illustrate the inequity of late work, the inequity of homework should be self-evident: we cannot monitor student learning, and the home environment—if there is a home—differs from student to student. Some of those environments are conducive to learning, and others not so much. When teachers grade homework, they contribute to keeping those with privilege soaring high while those without get hit with more obstacles. Most teachers not giving homework much thought at least understood how to play the school game (whether or not they did it as students, themselves). Therefore, I’m guessing that the thought of not having a quiet space to do homework, the freedom of not needing to take care of family members, or responsibility of working at the family’s restaurant is questioned by probably just 1% of teachers assigning it. And it’s quite possible that in some communities these situations are completely unheard of. Or, they’re just lurking in the shadows, still there.

For the second week, I polled a Facebook group of 12,600 language teachers, this time on their homework grading policies. After about a week, 625 responded. A little under a quarter (139) grade homework one way or another (e.g., completion, rubric, etc.), with the majority of them (109) dropping a zero in the gradebook if not done.

Zeros all but ensure an inaccurate reflection of what a student understands, knows, and can do. When averaged with other assignments, the effects of just one zero can bring down the grade to an impossible level of climbing out of. On the other hand, if there are so many assignments that a zero has minimal effect, then the entire grading category is oversaturated with assignments. The result is inaccuracy, either way. Zeros otherwise used “to get a student’s attention,” as many would say is how they use them, is a practice that only works for students keenly aware of their grades, but we know that using grades to motivate struggling learners doesn’t work. It turns out that struggling students are the vast majority of those who tend to not do assignments. So, the zero puts obstacles—often impassable—in the way.

The zero is also a byproduct of the unbelievably imbalanced 100 point scale, with 60 levels for failing (0-59), and just ~10 for each traditional letter grade above that (11 from 90-100). To give you a sense of how brainwashed teachers are when it comes to grading, not even Math teachers recognize the literal inequity of the 100 point scale! Those should be the teachers in every school advocating for a minimum grade of 50 or 55, equalizing letter grades with ~10 points per one.

In the homework poll, more than a few teachers mentioned what I’ll call “spillover grading,” which is classwork that gets converted into homework. Even if this wasn’t assigned as homework at first, it defaults to it. Of course, the nature of this work is what makes it more or less inequitable. For example, if the task is an independent one that a student couldn’t do on their own by the bell, the homework becomes punishment for working slower than classmates. I often hear that teachers give “tons of time” for classwork, but that statement seems to be made irrespective of “the work.” Depending on what’s asked of students, that class time could be something we arbitrarily set, and doesn’t reflect what the students, this year, in this class…today…can actually do. If we give 20 minutes every class for students to do classwork, what happens if it actually takes a student 27 minutes? The result is default homework, which begs the question: “is the home environment conducive to learning?”

Homework Truths(?)
It’s true that students who do homework likely interact with the content more, and likely increase their understanding and what they can do as a result. N.B. take most AP course syllabi—not pillars of equity—requiring many hours beyond class time. This is inequity at its worst, built into an entire system that has profound effects on academics beyond high school. We should burn the AP private money-maker to the ground, but until then… Of course, increasing understanding as a result of doing homework is contingent upon the homework being something of value and not just a time-filler. That’s a big “if.” That is, teachers must be positive that any work assigned (in or out of class, actually) is what’s causing learning. However, all too often this is not the case. Consider how many students don’t do any of what’s assigned, yet ace their assessments. That should be a red flag for all teachers, especially if more than a few students can do that. Otherwise, if the work is truly meaningful, and indeed causes learning, we’re still not out scot-free. We’re left with the fact that not all students can do work outside of class. More accurately, we can’t be certain that a student who doesn’t do their homework is choosing to not do their homework. That’d be a big judgment. Better look into that.

Eliminating Homework
We could look into who has obstacles at home. All signs point to letting go of grading anything outside the classroom, sure, but we can go further by eliminating homework entirely. When we keep learning within the class period, it levels the playing field of equity. Not only does getting rid of homework solve the inequity of grading what’s out of our and often our students’ control at home, but it also addresses the inequity of late penalties when the work teachers mostly assign is homework. Also, there’s nothing piling up to grade, or students to track down from absences. Consider such a massive improvement to one’s job! An unhappy teacher has a very low chance of making students happy. At least a happy teacher leaves the door open. In sum, this simple step has a big impact.

Personally, I used to assign reading homework, but not grade it. For a long time I fooled myself into thinking most students would be doing this on their own, somehow developing internal motivation to learn Latin. N.B. I’m laughing while typing this, thinking back to what was going through my mind as a teenager on a daily basis. It was NOT any content taught in school, I can assure you that. Last year, however, I started assigning reading from a Google Doc and found that absurdly low numbers of kids were even opening the document, let alone spending much time reading for those who did. I let go of that expectation, and now keep everything in-class. Plus, I now don’t have to ignore the inequity of assigning anything outside of class.

I realize the gut reaction of most teacher is to think something like “well my homework isn’t inequitable because…,” but it’s kind of similar to implicit bias: if we don’t look into it and become more aware of what’s going on, we’ll be oblivious to reality.

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