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.