Review: A REPAIR KIT FOR GRADING by Ken O’Connor

A Repair Kit for GradingA Repair Kit for Grading by Ken O’Connor
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

The ideas in Ken O’Connor’s A Repair Kit for Grading would work a lot better if students were all identical and self-motivated, and if we only want curricula to be morsels of accomplishment that once digested remain firmly in place.

O’Connor’s premise is that grading in most schools is a “broken” practice, including irrelevant, unfair components that present inaccurate pictures of students’ academic performance. He’s not completely wrong about that in many cases, but his suggestions for how to “repair” those grades are not in touch with reality, especially in large high schools.

For example, O’Connor advocates a no-zero policy in determining grades. If a student does not complete a required benchmark for determining her learning on a specific standard, the student does not receive a grade-crushing zero but instead is marked as Incomplete. That’s OK with me. An “Incomplete” is a more accurate reflection of the student’s learning than a zero. (The zero tells us about her level of compliance but not her level of learning.) But O’Connor goes on to say that the student should have 75 school days from the end of the marking period to complete the required benchmark without penalty.

Whoa, Nelly. 75 days? That means a student who does not complete a benchmark assessment due in February is Incomplete at the end of second semester, approximately June 1. O’Connor says that student should have until approximately January 1 to complete the assessment. This kind of impracticality borders on silliness. What are we saying to students, parents, and anyone who looks at transcripts from our schools when we say that grades produced by students on time and in sequence are equally as valid as grades produced by students according to their own whims and schedules, sometimes over vastly different periods of time?

O’Connor’s philosophy is rooted in the standards movement which says that each school should narrow its curriculum to a set number of standards, and then report grades based on summative assessments of those standards. Translation: O’Connor also believes that most homework should not be included in grades. A kernel of wisdom is embedded in this belief. Most student learning happens in class, while homework grades comprise significant portions of report card grades.

But schools adopting O’Connor’s approach to homework grades should be prepared to deal with students who lack the intrinsic motivation to do homework. These schools need to answer the question “Is homework a behavioral issue or an academic issue?” If students do not complete assignments, is that cause for disciplinary action or academic action? O’Connor seems to suggest that it is a cause for neither type of action, but my experience says that some students won’t do work if they are not being rewarded for it, either intrinsically or extrinsically. Different students are motivated by different strategies, but O’Connor says that we should adopt policies that rely on specifically intrinsic motivation because students will do academic work since it helps them prepare for summative assessments. Again, this indicates a certain naivety on O’Connor’s part. Many students will not do work unless they are getting a grade for it. Sad but true.

O’Connor says that grading practices should “support learning.” Amen to that. Everything in a school should “support learning,” right? But what if it doesn’t? Most educators can probably look around their school environments and identify situations that do not “support learning” but instead are entrenched because of traditions or practical considerations. For example, at my school, first period begins at 7:30 a.m. A lot of research exists that shows this early starting time is not conducive to learning, but changing that starting time has enormous pragmatic (and financial) implications. If schools commit to grading practices that “support learning” but do not conduct thorough examinations of other practices that do not “support learning,” the message sent to the community is that learning is only important sometimes.

O’Connor’s book provides several testimonials from schools and teachers who use elements of his plan. With due respect to those educators, these didn’t really prove anything other than that they were being implemented. Without some meaningful comparisons, the anecdotal narratives were interesting but not particularly compelling.

Maybe these ideas will work in elementary and middle schools. In fact, most of O’Connor’s examples seem to come from those levels. As students mature and become even more complex and adult-like, I have my doubts about whether these narrow approaches can be successful. O’Connor suggests that schools should not report “single-subject grades except for grades 11-12.” This means that report cards for 9th and 10th grade should look more like elementary school report cards that focus on specific skills. I actually see some merit in that, but will that kind of reporting be acceptable to all interested parties—parents, colleges, schools that students may be transferring into?

The biggest question raised by A Repair Kit for Grading is this: Should a grade be a reflection of where students end up academically, or should it also reflect their learning journey, including how they approached their learning behaviorally, and the relative ease or struggles they experienced? Any school considering adoption of Ken O’Connor’s “repair kit” should first thoroughly discuss the community’s beliefs about the relationship between grades, learning, and behavior.

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16 Responses to Review: A REPAIR KIT FOR GRADING by Ken O’Connor

  1. glenda says:

    Great review. I agree w/ everything you say about “A Repair Kit for Grading.” I actually did a book study on it last spring in my school. The no zero policy is one being shoved down our throats and is another reason why I much prefer Steve Peha’s 3P Grading method. It addresses the no zero issue as well as the willy-nilly idea that kids should have no deadlines.
    “A Repair Kit for Grading” is another one of those books, such as “A Framework for Understanding Poverty,” that gains traction when administrators go on a junket to some resort and then have “to show” how they’re using what they learned. This generally manifests itself in teachers having to adopt a ridiculous, and often harmful, policy.
    Now we have math teachers who list standards instead of assignments and record grades based on those, and their influence seeps into English classes, where adopting such a grading format will result in stilted, formulaic writing. It’s apples to oranges. What works in one grade or curriculum area won’t necessarily work in all.

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    • Glenda — I always appreciate your common sense. Funny you should mention “A Framework for Understanding Poverty” in this context. Two years ago, Ruby Payne was hired for a massive all-district presentation. She read a PowerPoint to us for an hour or so, and then we never heard another word about Ruby Payne.

      Our friend Jim Burke says professional development should be “sustained, coherent, and effective.” We were 0 for 3 on that with Ruby Payne.

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  2. Pingback: My Books for 2011 | What's Not Wrong?

  3. Ken O'Connor says:

    I have just found this review of my “Repair Kit” book.. Thank you for a reasonable review. You have acknowledged that some of my ‘fixes’ are OK, but you have some general and specific criticisms and I would like to respond to some of them.

    You state that I say a “student should have 75 school days from the end of a marking period to complete the required benchmark without penalty.” That is not correct, the 75 days is in the policy example for fix 12, and I make no specific recommendation in the book. The decision on how long incompletes “live” is up to each school; during the year it can be as long or as short as you think is appropriate but at the end there are four alternatives – the last day students are at school, the last day teachers are at school, a stated day during summer school, or a number of days into the next semester.

    You accuse me of naivety with my suggestions about homework but you fail to acknowledge that I say that homework that requires students to integrate or extend knowledge gained in the classroom are summative assessments and can legitimately be included in grades as long as the teacher monitors carefully to make sure that it is the student’s own work. With regard to most homework – practice – I do say that this should not be part of grades because students need to understand “if I do the practice, I will do better on the summative assessment.” Students understand this in band and basketball and we need them to understand this in the classroom. There are no score for practice in sports and there should be no points/marks for practice in the classroom. For more on the place of homework in grades I suggest you read this blog post – http://www.justintarte.com/2013/08/the-truth-about-homework-in-schools.html

    My background includes 23 years as a high school teacher and I reject your suggestion that these ideas are primarily for elementary and middle schools. It is only in high school that grades are high stakes and it is essential that high school grades be accurate, consistent, meaningful and supportive of learning so that there is accurate information about academic achievement and so that students leave high school as the self-directed independent learners they need to be in order to be successful in college or the world of work.

    I agree with you completely that if schools are considering implementing the fixes they need to have serious discussions about “the community’s beliefs about the relationship between grades, learning and behavior,” in other words discussion about the purpose(s) of grades.

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  4. ElCed says:

    Straw-man arguments like this do little to support points – “There are no score for practice in sports and there should be no points/marks for practice in the classroom.” That presupposes that score=grade. Coaches and players know that there are consequences to missing practice or performing poorly in practice no matter how well you play in games. Statements like, “it is essential that high school grades be accurate, consistent, meaningful and supportive of learning” are obvious and assume a somewhat insulting point of view on teachers. Last, where’s the data? For things like the no-zero policy, there seem to be a circle of experts citing each other – but underneath O’Connor and Guskey lie Raebeck (no study, no data, a middle-school English teacher’s paper from two decades ago) and Selby & Murphy (based on 6 LD students who were mainstreamed). We need to do better than this.

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    • Ken O'Connor says:

      “Coaches and players know that there are consequences to missing practice or performing poorly in practice no matter how well you play in games.”

      Ultimately what matters is only how well you play in games as that becomes the team record, which is what is remembered, determines who gets into the playoffs, and the coaches who move on to better programs or get fired. In order to play well in games coaches need to plan useful practice activities and most players need to use practice to get better, and this is exactly what should be happening in classroom learning.

      Statements like, “it is essential that high school grades be accurate, consistent, meaningful and supportive of learning” are obvious and assume a somewhat insulting point of view on teachers.

      I agree that it is a somewhat obvious statement but, given how badly broken most traditional grading is, these conditions of quality need to be implemented by teachers, and to suggest that is in no way is insulting to teachers.

      Last, where’s the data? For things like the no-zero policy,

      poweroficu.com has lots of data to support the use of no-zero policies that truly make students accountable and help students rather than penalizing them.

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  5. mark johannesen says:

    I’d like to talk to you before I meet with my schools administration as they are considering these actions

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    • Ken O'Connor says:

      Please feel free to contact me. My contact information is on my website at oconnorgrading.com

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    • Hello, Mark. Thanks for reading and for your comment. I just sent you an email with my contact info. Thanks also to Mr. O’Connor for offering to speak with you. When a school makes a big decision like overhauling its grading system, it’s always a good idea to get as many perspectives as possible.

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  6. Dale Smith says:

    I find part of Mr. O’Connor’s reply unbelievable. He cites as “proof” of the no zero policy a website: poweroficu.com. However, there is no evidence there, just a pitch to buy a host of products, including a database that would provide the heretofore missing “evidence.” Exactly how objective might one expect a coo recital product’s website to be? Like Mr. O’Connor’s book, evidence is confined to an inner circle of people sharing the same ideological committments (not a bad thing in itself) and who are selling products about it. Caveat emptor! Evidence to me would consist of controlled studies that are peer reviewed and published in academic journals, not on these websites pushing products. And, while I have looked high and low, evidence of this type either does not exist, or it is so vitally valuable that we must invest thousands of dollars in the programs of these educational salesman to learn about it.

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  7. Dale Smith says:

    I typed the message above on my iPad and had a typo. “commercial” came out as “coo recital” and I saw no way to edit. In the meantime, I reviewed the fixes proposed by Mr. O’Connor, and am puzzled when he statse the 75 day limit only applies to Fix #12. It reads “Don’t include zeros in grade determination where evidence is missing or as punishment.” As I understand this, it means that if missing evidence can be construed as no evidence (because something is not submitted) doesn’t this then apply to most categories of work?

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    • Ken O'Connor says:

      Hi Dale,
      I appreciate your ongoing criticism because it is only through this sort of dialogue that we get to better understanding of the issues and possible solutions.
      With regard to the 75 day limit I made this response earlier in this thread – “You state that I say a “student should have 75 school days from the end of a marking period to complete the required benchmark without penalty.” That is not correct, the 75 days is in the policy example for fix 12, and I make no specific recommendation in the book. The decision on how long incompletes “live” is up to each school; during the year it can be as long or as short as you think is appropriate but at the end there are four alternatives – the last day students are at school, the last day teachers are at school, a stated day during summer school, or a number of days into the next semester.”
      With regard to evidence of no zero policies, you are correct that poweroficu” is a commercial operation, but the success of their approaches to reducing missing assignments without the use of zeros is at least anecdotal evidence that real accountability is having students do the work, not saying ‘here is a zero, now you don’t have to do it.’ I also agree there are no formal studies and I wish someone would do a Ph. D or Ed. D dissertation on no zeros. For me the bottom line is that, given what we teach about equal difference and ratio in math classes, it is unethical and immoral to use zeros in a system where grades are based on percentages. If the cut for pass/fail is 60% a zero is a J orK not an F.

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  8. Benjamin Barr-Wilson says:

    I am confused by the coaching/sports analogy to academic classrooms. How athletes participate at practices often determines whether or not an individual will be allowed to participate on game day. Athletes that miss or do not participate in enough practices are eventually asked to leave the team. Herein lies my greatest confusion/frustration, in the United States students are compelled by law to engage in education. Poor performance or engagement in academics at school does not allow an individual to drop or be dropped from the team. It seems that this is one important reason that a students academic performance should not be compared sports. We, as educators, are asked to motivate students and to take them on a path from the extrinsic to intrinsic. When students are compelled, by law, to engage in academics this is not analogous to participation in sports. How might you respond?

    As an aside: I am also not convinced that the standards, as they are written at the nationwide or statewide level, are enough to measure a students aptitude for learning. As a high school science teacher, standards too often manifest themselves as a laundry list of facts to know. It would seem that work ethic also needs to be communicated as we move forward. I teach in a district that has not embraced a comprehensive report card (where aspects such as work ethic or organization are explicitly communicated) and therefore my assessment must be distilled into a single number. I don’t believe I can, in good conscience, leave this number solely to communicating the mastery of the learning standards as they are written.

    Striving,
    Benjamin

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    • Ken says:

      Thanks for your comments Benjamin. You say “Poor performance or engagement in academics at school does not allow an individual to drop or be dropped from the team.” I believe the comparison is legitimate – poor performance or engagement in the learning phase (practice/homework, classwork) almost always leads to poor achievement (performance on summative assessments) in the same way that poor performance/engagement in practice leads to poor performance in the game – unless you are Allen Iverson!
      Here is another sports comparison you may find interesting. http://twoblackbirds.com/?p=461

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  9. Ken says:

    Benjamin, thanks for sharing your thoughts. I still think the sports analogy holds up. You said “Poor performance or engagement in academics at school does not allow an individual to drop or be dropped from the team.” Poor performance or engagement in learning/formative assessment almost always leads to poor performance on summative assessments. Poor performance or engagement in sports almost always leads to sitting on the bench or poor results in the game – unless your Allen Iverson or John Daly (sometimes).
    This is another interesting sports comparison – http://twoblackbirds.com/?p=461

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  10. Ken says:

    I didn’t mean to post twice but until I posted the second time I couldn’t see the first!!!!!

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