Completion points result in grades less reflective of student understanding

Sneha Cheenath, Managing Editor

In education, there are many different theories on the best way to help students learn. However, there is a consensus that the overall goal of grades is to communicate the extent to which students have mastered the necessary concepts. 

Many points that end up going into the grade book, however, are not meant to assess a student’s understanding of a concept, but rather whether or not they met effort-based requirements. For example, if a student does 10 practice questions from a math textbook and the teacher gives them points for attempting each question, then that grade reflects the effort they put in, not how well they understood the concept the homework was made to reinforce. 

Thus, giving students points for completing homework directly contrasts to give grades. A study by the Crescendo Education Group found that a grading system made to only reflect how well a student mastered the concepts resulted in many positive changes. Grades were more equitable among students of different races/incomes and overall fewer students failed their class. The big changes to traditional grading that this study examined are reducing grades awarded for behaviors (like doing homework or participation) and being more forgiving of mistakes made at the beginning of the semester via a decaying average. 

Furthermore, students all have different capacities for completing homework, so a direct punishment for not completing it results in inequity issues. Lauren Falkner is a Dougherty Valley High School (DVHS) Assistant Principal and member of the district’s grading reform committee. She explained that “you might have a kid go home, and they have to take care of their siblings. Or you have a kid go home and they might have a job.”

Homework undoubtedly helps students learn the material, but if a student can prove that they have mastered a concept via assessments, then there is no reason to penalize them for not doing the homework. 

A valid concern is that a grade completely reliant on testing would be extremely stressful for students. Ideally, teachers would allow students to retest every concept so that they have a chance to learn material that they did not. Rick Wormeli, an education expert who recently gave professional development to San Ramon Valley Unified School District (SRVUSD) teachers, echoed this statement on his website, saying that in the professional world, “learning that moves to long-term memory is demanding and reiterative, and we need to extend the same opportunities to our students in all fields of learning”. 

As a teacher, Falkner would allow her biology students to retest certain concepts that she thought were especially important for them to understand. But before a student could retake a test, she would have them come in during access and explain their plan to study and do better. Falkner said that almost all of the students did better on their second attempt. 

One could also say that testing as a whole might not be an assessment that is accurate for everyone, but testing is an important skill that students need to learn. Assessments are a key part of higher education, so high schools should emulate that environment. Many important academic mainstays, like the SAT or Advanced Placement exams, are tests and it is a teacher’s responsibility to prepare students for that type of assessment.

Undoubtedly, a class that is not padded by completion points would be more difficult. Crescendo’s study found that it did decrease the number of students who got A’s, but it also decreased the number of students who failed. These grades were also more in line with performance on standardized tests than those from traditional grading, which proves that students didn’t have increased issues with learning under the new system, rather their grades were inflated before. If the most accurate way to grade students, the way most in line with the goals of grading, results in fewer A’s, then there should be fewer people who are getting A’s. As the tide turns towards this new way of grading students, people’s expectations will too. 

Not giving any points for homework, however, could be problematic because, for most students, homework is necessary to do well in other aspects of the class. Ideally, students would understand that they need extra practice and do the work for that reason. However, students do not always have that “self-awareness”, as Falkner put it, which is why she gave students points for homework assignments in her biology class. “It became a transactional thing of ‘did you do your homework? You get the five points,’” she explained. 

However, this completion-based way of giving points rewards a behavior, rather than an understanding of the concepts, which waters down the meaning of grades. One way to ensure that students are practicing important skills while keeping grades reflective of knowledge is to grade all of the homework that goes into the grade book. Then, not only will students be incentivized to do their homework, but they will be incentivized to do it well, which will further support their learning. 

Another solution could be to have students practice skills in class, the model that Falkner later adopted: “kids would go home and they’d watch my lecture […] and then in class, we would do the homework, we would do the practice.” This way, teachers can make sure students are practicing their skills, but maintain the integrity of their grades and respect their students’ time. 

These stark differences show that a grade without completion points is vastly different from the one that only grades for the necessary standards, further emphasizing the reason completion points should not be included in a student’s grade. 

Overall, to best accomplish the goals of education, grades should be completely based on how well a student understands the material. Giving students completion points that reward behaviors, rather than learning, is out of line with those goals which is why all teachers should move towards a more standards-based model.