Thursday, April 9, 2015

The Search for a Workable Late-Work Policy, PART ONE

I'm calling this PART ONE because I know I'll write a PART TWO as the school-year wraps up, to reflect on the high school-wide After School Assistance Program, of which I was a co-founder.  I guess that's the "macro" look at the late-work policy.  Today I'll offer a "micro" look at what I've done in my own classroom:

Until this year, our school policy for late assignments was fairly typical.  At least, it was strikingly similar to what my own school's late policy had been when I was a student, and to the policies in place at the schools where I student taught:
The score on a late assignment would be reduced by 10% for each day late past the due-date.  After five days, the score would stop decreasing, however beyond that point the students would only receive 50% credit if the work they submitted was of 'B' quality or higher.
I didn't think to doubt this policy in my first few years of teaching because it was so familiar.  Like the fish who doesn't know that the water around him is wet, I just assumed this was the way things were, for better or for worse.

It wasn't until my Master's course on assessment last fall that I began to see flaws in the policy.  In that course, one of my main takeaways was that assessments should reflect students' mastery of skills and understandings; that the data should reflect the student's proficiency.  I came to realize that timeliness, while important, was actually a separate skill from, say, writing.  If I took points off of a students' writing score because they had submitted their essay late, the score would fail to accurately reflect the student's true achievement or needs as writers.

Moreover, the policy simply wasn't working: at the end of the semester, it was not unusual to look down the online list of a class' grades and see the telltale red 'missing' notification next to a number of students' names.  Some students were ending the semester deep in a pit of missing or late assignments, barely scraping by or even failing.

As I was having these realizations, our high school division was discussing the role of homework in general.  Eventually, that discussion came around to the late penalty.  It was soon apparent that while there were a variety of opinions on what a better solution would be, everyone was of one mind in recognizing the brokenness of the late penalty as it was.

I won't go into the policy we came up with in this post, suffice it to say that it was a total departure from what we'd done in the past and I had the (sometimes stressful, sometimes frustrating) privilege of implementing (and fine-tuning) that policy with a fellow social studies teacher.

The question remained, however, what my personal policy would be on late work.

So, I decided to create a "timeliness" score in my gradebook.  It's not a big part of the grade--only 5% of the total--but unlike other scores, timeliness starts at an A.  I give the students each 200 points at the start of the semester.  For each late assignment, I subtract 5% from the total and then make a note of the assignment and the date that will be visible to the students and their parents under the timeliness score.
For one school-week after a due-date, the students will only receive a 5% deduction for submitting late work.  I consider this a "grace period"--the late assignment goes into the grade-book notes to make the parents aware, but the penalty is relatively small and not enough to hurt if it only happens a couple times.  However, after one week has passed, each additional day the assignment does not come in costs another 10 points from the timeliness score.  So, if a student turns in an essay a week and a half late, they would lose 35 points from their timeliness score (the initial 5, plus 30% for three days past the one week mark).
At this stage, the lost points start to sting.  I honestly cannot say that this policy has reduced the number of late assignments, but now the final scores are a more accurate reflection of what my student achieved: the fact is, I do have several excellent writers in my class who are habitually late. Under the previous system, the grades would have inaccurately shown that these students were poor writers; the new system shows the situation as it really is.
That's wonderful and I feel good about that.  But something is still missing... after all, if I'm assessing it, I had better be teaching it!  The next step will be to think through and consciously include instruction and practice in developing better time-use habits.  Perhaps I can offer points if students make and submit a work-schedule for themselves... something along those lines might be valuable, anyway, and might even impart a value for timeliness to even the most chronically late of students!

As promised, I'll talk more later about the policy we adopted as a high school division and how that has worked out.

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