Unhelpful Grading Practices (Part 2 of ??)

By | July 26, 2010

Disclaimer: I am not an expert in standards-based grading or traditional grading for that matter. While I hope my reflections on grading practices will help you reflect on your own, my venture into SBG is still hypothetical at this point. Hopefully I will have a strong enough grasp on this all before the school year begins.

Now, back to the action:

4. “Sucks for you!” zeroes

In a points system, a zero can mean that a student has absolutely no understanding of the material, failed to submit work for any number of reasons, or a penalty for some sort of academic dishonesty. Regardless of the cause, zeroes, even on small assignments, can have detrimental effects on a student’s grade, in many cases causing irreparable damage.

  • Why I did it: No idea. Frustration? Everyone else is doing it? Punishment? Perhaps a little of each. But it has never been because the student demonstrates no understanding of the material.
  • Why I’m dumping it: I’m not sure what a solution would be in a traditional points system, but in SBG, a zero has a very specific meaning. In the grading scale I will likely adopt, a 0.0 means that even with guidance from a teacher, the student cannot demonstrate the most basic concepts for a given standard.
    • There are dozens of reasons why a student may fail to turn in an assignment. They may feel that the assignment is not a good use of their time. They may have health issues or pressure in other classes. They may have forgotten about it. It may be an act of teenage rebellion against parents. They may have no clue how to do it. The distinction between knowing how to demonstrate mastery and not being able to demonstrate mastery is the key distinction I am concerned with.
    • As for plagiarism, one “sketchy” lab report could very well drop your grade by a full letter (in the points-based system). There is certainly a better way to help our students maintain academic integrity than punishing them with zeroes.*

5. Late Penalty (known alias: “Preparing kids for the ‘real world'”)

No late penalty (or accepting late work) is the most common objection to standards-based grading. At my previous school, a late penalty was needed just to get any work, and for some students, a bad grade wasn’t enough motivation to get the work done. I’ve used up to 10% penalty. Most recently, I’ve eliminated the “day” penalties, ┬ábut I still draw a line in the sand for when I accept a particular assignment late.

  • Why I did it: ANARCHY! Imagine the chaos if deadlines were fluid. How can consistent grading be ensured if reports are graded weeks apart? And how can I be sure that little Jimmy didn’t just copy Sammy Q’s lab from Mr. Z’s class lab two months later? Just the thought of having to grade lab reports 1-5 simultaneously makes my head explode. And imagine the stacks of ungraded work on my desk at the end of the term. Surely, that must be a fire hazard.
  • Why I’m dumping it**: Umm… IT HAS NOTHING TO DO WITH LEARNING. As for my above concerns, I trust my students. Lack of a late penalty doesn’t mean an abolishment of deadlines. If I’m doing my job, there will be numerous evidences for students’ mastery of any given standard. Hopefully, my students will recognize that timely submission of work will lead to timely feedback necessary for future work. With SBG, the late penalty could be a different task, or a different method of demonstrating mastery of the skills required for that assignment.

* Our school mission asks us to lead our students to “distinguish right from wrong.” Crystal clear expectations from day one is a good start.

**There is nothing in our mission about preparing students to be good employees. Heck, the word “college” doesn’t even appear. So I think I’m safe.


Valerie Hardy on August 1, 2010 at 11:18 am.

I am a Middle School teacher. This is clear to me now and I feel it will be less stress on the teacher as well as the student.


greg burkhart on August 5, 2010 at 11:39 am.

what mark are you giving for work / assessment not done if the zero is reserved for students who have tried but have no understanding? I switched to SBG 2 years ago in physics and would never go back.


Ms. Bethea on August 5, 2010 at 11:58 am.

My pre-SBG practice is to put an incomplete (I) for missing assignments. In the vast majority of cases, it is turned in before the end of the marking period. Regardless, I choose to put late or missing work goes under the participation grade, which is separate from academic grade at my school.

I’d love to see how you implement SBG in your physics class. Do you have a website or blog?


Nancy on August 11, 2010 at 7:01 pm.

I have a questions about late work.

I’m looking at changing to SBG for this year in Physics, and I’ve been writing up my grading policy. In the past, I’ve given late penalties for lab reports (only up to one day late, since I give plenty of time), and for not making up a test in a timely manner. This was the result of students missing a test due to an absence, then telling me they’ll make it up NEXT WEEK !! I explain that I’d have to hold all of the tests until then, etc. I have to add that these are upperclassmen, honors students, so they know all of the tricks. In a general-level class, I would do things a bit differently.

So, in SBG, how do you deal with late work or tests? As you say in the blog post, lateness has nothing to do with learning. But it does have a lot to do with a teacher’s planning, cheating for answers, and fairness to those students who completed things in a timely manner.

Thanks for your insight!


gasstationwithoutpumps on August 12, 2010 at 11:09 am.

The theory of SBG would suggest that timeliness is a separate standard, though one that may have to be averaged over several measurements, since it is a stochastic phenomenon that demonstrating once is not sufficient.


Ms. Bethea on August 12, 2010 at 1:28 pm.

I agree with gasstationwithoutpumps, in terms of day-to-day assignments, and lab reports, timeliness could be used as a separate standard.

SBG or no SBG, I think its important to have a very clear policy describing what a reasonable timeframe for making up a test is. You can allow for some minor flexibility (as there’s a difference between someone who is out sick with a flu and literally can’t work, and someone who missed your class for a dentist’s appointment or college visit), but the first conversation you should have with a student is scheduling the make up at the earliest possible time.

I’m not a fan of holding tests indefinitely, so you will have to either have alternative versions, or prepare an alternative assessment that will allow the student to demonstrate understanding. I even think a 1-on-1 session, where you make up problems on the fly and ask questions would work well.


Barb (@barbbesal) on June 13, 2011 at 6:33 pm.

We had a teacher last year who was big into Mastery… the notion that kids can take and retake tests (alternative versions, of course) until they are happy with their own performance. His phrase was “it takes the excuse matrix to zero”. Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams out in Colorado do a lot with Mastery. As I understand it, they set up sort of a moving timeline of when things are due. I love that idea, and it seems to work in tandem with SBG. But it seems that SBG goes one step farther because if a student isn’t ready to be assessed, there’s no requirement to. Do I have that idea right?


Alex M on December 15, 2015 at 3:56 pm.

In my chemistry classroom, we also use standards based grading. I like how you describe late penalties as a teacher-centered practice. Standards-based grading really does make the grading process more honest and solely focused on assessing a student’s ability to demonstrate a skill or knowledge. It would be interesting to have “ability to turn in work on time” as a standard. I wonder if that would really be worthwhile though. As you mentioned, your school mission is not prepare students for employment or college so the standard would not be aligned with your schools mission, rather it would be from your own mission.



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