Sunday, February 26, 2012

The Death Of Homework?

As you may recall from my last entry, a vocal group of parents is very angry about the Hillsboro School District's recent grading reforms.  The most controversial part of these is the move to a complete reliance on tests, rather than homework, for grading.   The new policy is summarized here :

In June of 2011, IK-AR (Administrative Rule) was revised and is the tool to implement the new grading policy.  
2010-2011: Implement balanced grading
2011-2012: Academic Practice (ie: formative=homework) grades may count for a maximum of 10% of the grade. Academic Practice is a fancier way of saying homework, but is referenced by the district also as a "formative" assessment.
Academic Achievement (ie: summative =tests, projects, term papers, etc.) must count for a minimum of 90% of the grade. Academic Achievement is also known as "summative" assessments.
"Nonacademic behaviors" (ie: late work) that could affect grade are not to exceed 10% of the grade
2012-2013: Academic Achievement (ie: summative=tests, projects, etc.) must count for 100% of the grade

The key point, other than the silly "balanced grading" aspect, which I discussed last week, is that regular homework is considered a "nonacademic behavior", and this cannot be considered in grading.     This idea has some merit to it, in certain cases.  For example, I was always annoyed in high school math class by the fact that after I "got it", I had to do hours of tedious busy-work assigned by my teachers in order to get a decent grade.  And there are some merits to have a grade based directly on student knowledge without confusion from other factors.  (Though this role is already played by standardized tests.)

The biggest problem is that this grading reform ignores a very important fact:  there is a lot of learning that gradually sinks in after repeated practice.    A huge number of students, including the ones most at risk of failure, do not have the emotional and intellectual maturity to decide when they do and don't need to do homework.   Some supporters of this policy might argue that treating homework as a behavioral item will not eliminate it, just change the form of the incentives for doing it.   I think the best way to counter this argument is with an anecdote from when I was tutoring inner-city African-American kids in Pittsburgh, and a junior high student asked me for help.

Student:   "I'm failing math, can you help me?"
Me:  "Sure, show me your most recent homework assignment & we'll take a look."
[Student hands me the assignment.  I am totally baffled, as the answers seem like random numbers with absolutely no relation to the questions.]
Me, in confusion:  "How did you arrive at the answer for number 1?"
Student:  "Oh, I just put anything there, because the teacher just checks off whether we did it."
Me:  "Ummm... have you ever thought about actually trying to do your homework for real?"
Student, annoyed:  "That would be dumb, it doesn't count towards our grade!"
Me:  "I think I may know why you are failing math."

This strikes me as the scariest aspect of the new policy:  it puts a level of responsibility on the students that many are simply not ready for, and many will take the easy way out, putting in a symbolic job on homework to avoid disciplinary action, while not spending the time and effort to actually understand it.   In short, this policy sounds like it was designed from an ivory tower without understanding how it would affect actual children.   Real children will be happy to blow off their homework and spend more time on their X-Box, and will deny the connection between this behavior and their eventual low test scores. 

There are plans for a large group of parents to appear at the upcoming school board meeting to protest the policy, and I hope they succeed in producing a repeal.

1 comment:

  1. An update: At the April board meeting, this policy was reformed, returning grading autonomy to the teachers where it belongs.