kitchen table math, the sequel: Froggiemama on gatekeeping, part 2 (and against zero)

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Froggiemama on gatekeeping, part 2 (and against zero)

To follow up on the story - we did go the special needs route after my extremely bright kid was gatekeepered out of every honors course for the 9th grade. Our district has cutoffs that range from 90 to 95, which you have to maintain for 3 quarters the year before. The problem is, the 8th grade teachers grade largely on vast reams of homework, which all must be submitted in the exact format mandated. It is all on paper, so everyday is a massive paper shuffle. If anything gets lost, it is a 0. The science teacher would take off points if the pen color was blue instead of black, or the margins were wrong, or there were fraggles left on the paper. So my smart but messy and forgetful kid could never get his average up over the cutoffs even though he aced the tests.

So we had a full neuropsych done to the tune of several thousand dollars, targeted at the school district. We learned, surprise, surprise, that my son scores in one of the higher reaches of the gifted realm (forget the term now for his level), and is also "inattentive ADHD". We did a 504 plan, during which I promised he would see a weekly therapist/coach (to the tune of $195 per week) and would take meds. Those promises finally got him a waiver to get into the honors courses. The last one to capitulate was science (his 8th grade science teacher hated him and refused to help out). And now, guess what? He has the highest average in the class in science, with several 100's on tests that the teacher says "no one gets a 100 on." Bleh to the gatekeepers.
As Susan S used to say, I don't even know where to begin.

Since I don't, and since I don't remember discussing this before, here is Douglas Reeves on "The Case Against Zero."
[T]he common use of the zero today is based not on a four-point scale but on a 100-point scale. This defies logic and mathematical accuracy. On a 100-point scale, the interval between numerical and letter grades is typically 10 points, with the break points at 90, 80, 70, and so on. But when the grade of zero is applied to a 100-point scale, the interval between the D and F is not 10 points but 60 points. Most state standards in mathematics require that fifth-grade students understand the principles of ratios -- for example, A is to B as 4 is to 3; D is to F as 1 is to zero. Yet the persistence of the zero on a 100-point scale indicates that many people with advanced degrees, including those with more background in mathematics than the typical teacher, have not applied the ratio standard to their own professional practices. To insist on the use of a zero on a 100-point scale is to assert that work that is not turned in deserves a penalty that is many times more severe than that assessed for work that is done wretchedly and is worth a D. Readers were asked earlier how many points would be awarded to a student who failed to turn in work on a grading scale of 4, 3, 2, 1, 0, but I'll bet not a single person arrived at the answer "minus 6." Yet that is precisely the logic that is employed when the zero is awarded on a 100- point scale.

There are two issues at hand. The first, and most important, is to determine the appropriate consequence for students who fail to complete an assignment. The most common answer is to punish these students. Evidence to the contrary notwithstanding, there is an almost fanatical belief that punishment through grades will motivate students. In contrast, there are at least a few educators experimenting with the notion that the appropriate consequence for failing to complete an assignment is to require the student to complete the assignment. That is, students lose privileges -- free time and unstructured class or study-hall time -- and are required to complete the assignment. The price of freedom is proficiency, and students are motivated not by threats of failure but by the opportunity to earn greater freedom and discretion by completing work accurately and on time. I know my colleagues well enough to understand that this argument will not persuade many of them. Rewards and punishments are part of the psyche of schools, particularly at the secondary level.
Froggiemama on gatekeeping, part 1


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I have a very different view of zero. It is indeed the correct score for zero work being done. The problem is in having the work be so trivial that you can do 60% of it correctly and still be doing a miserable job. The work should be designed so that doing half of it gets you to the middle of the class, and failure is around 10-20% done. Then the 0 is right about where it should be—a solid failure, but not very different from other failures.

lgm said...

>>That is, students lose privileges -- free time and unstructured class or study-hall time -- and are required to complete the assignment.

Well, that does work for a few; but the majority have a different issue, the issue of not being developmentally where the class is. Full inclusion with its dumbed down coursework solved that, but it also made the oppositional defiance more visible.

SteveH said...

There are a lot of ways to deal with zero issues, but some teachers/schools do not want to use them.

One common method is to allow one of your grades to be thrown out. However, this allows some teachers to continue to give out zeros if a homework is not handed in on time. My son had a number of these, and they were always caused by some confusion. In some cases, half the class would get zeros because of the confusion. The teacher would not budge - blaming student inattention. Teachers could take a percentage off for each day it's late. Some don't do that because they think that the death zero will get your attention.

Other teachers love to give out really, really low grades as a way to get your attention. Generally, students are blind-sided by the low grades. Typically, these grades happen early in the semester and that the same sort of work won't get hit so hard towards the end of the semester. I despise teachers who use those techniques.

Then there are the issues of grading by having points taken off. This usually means that if the teacher kept going at that rate, you could get a negative grade.

One teacher my son had in high school English loved to use grading as a form of class control. Also, he never gave out A's, or at least a 4.0 (94 or above). This did not follow school grading recommendations and did not follow department rules, but our teachers have a lot freedom over grading. Some are fighting the use of zeroes and the dis-engagement it causes, but with little effect.

Our helicoptering in high school had mostly to do with monitoring our Aspen grading system to catch and fix problems right away, and most of them had to do with finding out why zeroes or very low grades appeared. My son was not shy about talking to the teachers, but if your child is shy or intimidated, the low grade will never be fixed, and teachers really don't like it when parents raise the issue.

In that English class my son had, if you had any questions, you had to make an appointment with him after school and he taped the meeting. If you didn't show up without and excuse, he would find some way to take points off of your class grade. He would also require after-school oral reviews of some of your homework - taped of course - where he would ask you what you thought you should get for a grade. I told my son that he should always say an 'A' in those situations. Other students, however, would be intimidated into giving themselves low grades, and he would put those grades in for them.

And if our son was ever gatekeepered out of a class (with no optional override), they would be facing a lawsuit from us.

SteveH said...

And, of course, the union contract has no death zeroes in it.

froggiemama said...

I actually do believe in 0's. If we allow late submissions, then I have to wait to go over solutions with the students. But I also believe in meaningful assignments, and making it easy, absolutely easy, for students to remember and hand in their work. That is where our district fails.

In my son's middle school classes, homework was assigned somewhat firehose style, a constant blast of assignments with complex moving parts, arcane formatting requirements, and multi-stage due dates. The teachers utterly refuse to help the students and parents remember the assignment due dates and instructions. Assignments are listed in one place only - the class whiteboard - and in some classes the assignments are quickly erased. Instructions are all oral. The teachers do not post the assignments on the LMS, nor will they answer email in the evening (which is when we parents often realize that our kid really did not get all the instructions written down).

Then, when it is time to hand in the assignment, there is no prompt from the teacher. Kids have to remember to put the papers into a box, or often a series of color coded boxes, on their own. This became the sticking point for my kid. He would do the assignments, but forget to get them into the box. The assignment would usually end up lost someplace in the classroom, and a 0 would result. The teachers also would not accept emailed assignments.

In contrast, when I teach, I put all instructions into written format, which is posted on the LMS, handed out on paper, and emailed if a student needs it that way. I remind them constantly, both in class, and by email and LMS announcement. I usually keep a class online discussion board, and reminders go there too. The assignments are also on the course outline, which is posted in the LMS and kept up to date. When it is time to hand them in, I go around the room if paper is being submitted, and ask each student by name, standing there looking into his or her eyes, to give it to me. Usually they submit online, though, so I go through and check to see who has handed it in The idea is to make sure everyone gets the assignment in - because I want to go over the solution immediately while the assignment is still fresh in their minds. And that is the big reason I can't take late assignments.

SteveH said...

"If we allow late submissions, then I have to wait to go over solutions with the students."

No you don't. If they have done the homework, but forgot to get it in, then it's fresh in their minds. If they have not done the homework, then they have other issues and it's their problem to deal with. Death zeroes make no distinctions.

Auntie Ann said...

Wow, usually discussions around here apply to our boy, but this one is all about our girl. Everything above applies to her. She started high school this year and her test grades are great, but in class after class missing homework is killing her. In one, the teacher said she has a high B+ on tests, but a low C on homework.

Sometimes she doesn't know what the assignments are or when they're due.

Sometimes she loses them.

Sometimes she forgets to turn them in.

Sometimes all the teachers dump the homework on a single day and she's too tired to get it done (classes are supposed to *average* 45 minutes (!) a night each, but a teacher can give minimal homework for days, then load up 2 hours worth in a night.)

Sometimes she doesn't want to talk to the teacher to find out if she can turn it in late.

Once she gets behind, she doesn't know how to get out of a hole and often makes no effort to do so.

She's a mess. Last Friday I emailed every one of her teachers for late assignments, and every single one of them had a list. She was too late to turn in a lot of stuff, but she spent the weekend under supervision trying to crank the rest. We also emailed the dean who has met with her twice in the last week to help her get organized.

The teachers are friendly and helpful, but she seems to think they will get mad at her if she goes to talk to them.

Homework has become so much more of a burden since I was in school, and it has gotten out of hand. The root cause of this might simply be that the homework load is excessive.

Anonymous said...

Boy, I'm so glad to be done with all that. Almost everything that Auntie Ann and froggiemama write about was my existence, too, when my son was in school.

Plus, all through middle school and high school, he was graded on class participation. Every class. Since he is very shy and quiet, those grades alway brought his main grade down.

When he imploded first semester junior year (yes, that semester.) I just looked at him and said, "Well, I guess your future is too important to be left up to you."

I contacted all teachers for meetings and took a notebook. What was amazing was all the different ways the student learned about homework. A couple were good with their websites, others never posted. Some passed out weekly assignments, but changed them during the week and forgot to tell kids who were out for sickness or competitions, while others just wrote it on the board. Others sent texts. Nothing was consistent from one teacher to the other. Yet, they were graded harshly for being late or missing anything.

The executive functions requirements put on these kids was more than most adults could handle.

Almost all of them (and these are all honors and AP teachers) would post the grades very late, weeks late, so if your child was having a problem, you found out almost too late to do anything.

Once I found out how hard hard it was for me to keep track of homework assignments, I started emailing them for clarity. Some were helpful, others remained scattered.

We also got an ADHD inattentive diagnosis and a 504 plan, but again, some teachers are helpful, others pretty much ignore it.

After hiring a couple of Northwestern tutors and basically checking all of the class websites every single day, we gradually pulled up the grades, but what a ridiculous, confusing mess.

It wasn't until I talked to other parents that I started hearing the same stories about some of the same teachers.

Some kids can flourish and have extroverted personalities, and can also advocate for themselves. My son always thought the teacher hated him when he asked a question.

My son is much happier in college. It really is a shame that it was like that, and still continues to be.


Allison said...

A zero can be quite useful. But the real question isn't the 0; it is, What is the Grade For?

The truth is that learning something new takes an incrdible amount of effort, and for ALL OF THAT EFFORT, you still aren't good at it.

So you've just spent 10 hours doing the work, and you still don't get it. Can't solve a problem yet, can barely solve the simplest example. Should you get an A for that? a B+? Hardly.

If grades are supposed to relate "this is how much you actually mastered of the material", then a 60% as a D is a perfectly reasonable grade--because for a sufficiently difficult problem, doing 60% of the effort to learn something to mastery still has you incompetent at it. It will take that much effort AGAIN to get competent at it.

Someone who put in no effort at all isn't anywhere near a D. The 50%er almost made it, and is not hopeless, but has no mastery. The 0 indicates no effort has yet been put forth.

So, then the question is again, what is the grade for? If the purpose of homework is to provide you a good opportunity to learn what you need to master, then it shouldn't matter if you turn it in or not. The test should be sufficiently difficult to determine that.

But most people don't like that, and most people aren't internally motivated enough to study without a more immediate reward for their effort.

GSW/OP is right that it needs to be sufficiently difficult, but I consider the details of whether a 50% correct consitutes minimal mastery or 80% constitutes minimal mastery to not be a very interesting question--it would be, of course, best, if a school standardized on such a definition.

Auntie Ann said...

A lot of homework, especially in math or a class like physics, should be where you work out mistakes and move towards understanding and mastery.

A number of her teachers understand this and grade on a check system, where you simply get a check if you did it, and a 0 if you didn't. You don't have to have gotten everything right.

In a class like English, with a large writing component, it's a different story.

Glen said...

I think all K-12 teachers should be required to enter their assignments in writing into an online homework management system. Each student would log in and see a merged dashboard displaying a calendar of due dates, a sufficiently detailed description of each assignment, and the teacher's estimate of the time each assignment should take.

All assignments must be posted at least a week before they are due. The system itself will not even allow a shorter due date to be entered. If an assignment is not in the system, it was not assigned, no matter what else the teacher might have said in class, written on the board, etc. Not on the calendar in proper form? Wasn't assigned, and no points can be lost for not doing it.

Have requirements for pen color, margin size, no fraggles on page, etc? Write them into the specs, because if it isn't written in the specs, it isn't required, and no points can be taken off for not following a non-existent spec. The specs, of course, are uneditable after posting, so any dispute can be referred to the only true specification of the assignment.

If the teacher wants to amend an assignment, it can be done, but the original is still retained (uneditable) by the system, so parents can point to it in case of dispute. Teachers are allowed to amend an assignment to reduce requirements, but any change that adds to them must be made in the form of a new assignment with, again, at least 7 days lead time.

If the teacher enters a change that increases the work, he'll have an incentive to decrease the work in some other assignment, because each teacher will be given an overall homework time "budget" to work from. You want to add an extra hour's work to this assignment? Okay, take that hour away from some other assignment. Want to lowball your estimate of the time required for the work? Eventually, you can expect a review board to force you to compensate your students by removing your assignments at time and a half.

Teachers will want to plan ahead and not change assignments willy-nilly, because when work gets bunched up and requires more than the nightly maximum decreed by the principal, the "overtime" must also be compensated at time and a half. If my kid has to work an hour beyond the daily max before a big project, the teacher must provide an hour-and-a-half of homework "comp time" over the next few days.

Then we'll see who gets his assignments posted on time, who gets the pen-color specs entered in the correct format, who manages homework time carefully by planning ahead, who gets zeroes (nobody turns in the assignment) for not following the rules....

Ah, parent fantasies.

SteveH said...

Glen, do you call that 21st Century Teaching? I especially like the auditable trail and the requirement for minimum lead time for homework. Students and parents need a union contract too.

Our schools now use the Aspen online system for grades, assignments, comments, and discipline notices. However, the assignments part has no teacher requirements.

In terms of grades, I often saw the grades before my son did. For many classes, there were also statistics like the highest grade and the mean and median. These were helpful to determine if a teacher was a particular type of grader or was trying to send a message. However, some teachers were very bad about entering grades and the school had to set drop-dead dates for them to update grades. This should also be a part of Glen's fantasy system - the requirement to get grades in by, say, one week after the due date or else the grades cannot be entered.

Do teachers get any training on writing and grading homework and tests in ed school? I found that many teachers just used tests they got from books and online. I used to carefully design all of the questions on my tests and make-up tests. Using existing tests often had my son doing questions on material that they never covered in class or were told that they did not need to know. Getting and keeping your highest GPA requires attention and you have to be an extrovert and aggressive advocate. Shy kids are hurt both by grading and by the modern meme of dominant-based in-class group work.

However, I don't like shy in the sense that these students are weak and need to learn to be something else. There is a difference between being a doormat and being easy-going. Aggressive extroverts might fight for what is rightly theirs, but many end up assuming that this is the way it's supposed to be. It's an advantage for them.

lgm said...

My district has had Regent's Science teachers who use Castle Learning extensively to assign and track problem sets. It's really nice, as the students know the due date of the HW the same day they start the unit. And they aren't limited to the assigned problem sets - they can work every problem in the test bank and see the solution. Very handy, and very good aid to learning all the material rather than just the basic plus middle level that was presented in the fully included class. But, it was abandoned after it was declared 'elitist'.

Auntie Ann said...

Last night's example of the ridiculous amounts of homework:

All assigned yesterday, due today:

1) Math assignment (at least 1 hour)
2) Science assignment (1 to 1.5 hours)
3) English essay (1.5-2 hours, kid writes slowly)
4) History 10 minute video to watch + 15 questions to answer (at 2 minutes a question, that's a 40 minute assignment.)

Long-term or foreseeable work for today:

1) Latin quiz
2) Primary source research phase due for a long term research paper. Include finding two primary sources about a church built in the 1100's, and doing the research.

She almost always is on the later range of the estimated-time interval. The kid didn't do the science, and only did part of the math, and still went to bed at 3:45.

froggiemama said...

Our district uses Castle learning too, but in addition to written work. Castle learning is great, but my one pet peeve is that there is no way to see WHAT has been submitted. It just says "You have no outstanding assignments" once everything is completed.

My son has one teacher who puts all the assignments on the LMS, but he mainly does it because he doesn't have budget for photocopies.The kids are expected to download the pages, print them, and hand them in on paper. That makes me nuts too because the school has cheap-to-run laser printers, but the kids end up having to print on expensive home inkjet printers. He also is late on putting the homework out sometimes, so we always check a second time around 7pm in case something has popped up.

FedUpMom said...

I think the author is setting up a false dichotomy. I don't see any meaningful distinction between punishing students for incomplete assignments and forcing students to complete assignments in what otherwise would have been their free time. The loss of free time is also a punishment, and I don't see why it would be a better motivator than a bad grade.