What Are Grades Supposed to Mean?

I’m troubled today by an email conversation at my school this week. We just came back from a long Thanksgiving break which came after fall term finals (we are on a trimester system.) We have the whole week of Thanksgiving off and some kids did not come back until Tuesday night from their travels. These are some boarding kids and they did not communicate clearly their travel plans with the school. For some combination of reasons they did not return until last night. Two of them are students in my AP Statistics class and we already have our first quiz tomorrow. Now, I understand that these kids goofed up and I know that the administration is dealing with it in some way. Probably either after school detention or Saturday morning detention is in the works for these kids. We received an email instructing us to hold these students accountable for any work missed. I understand that this is a pretty standard response. I’ve been at three other schools and I am certain that they all would issue a similar statement. I am certainly guilty of having enforced such disciplines in the past, but I find myself troubled by this now. Maybe it is my exposure to such a wide world of reflective bloggers and tweeters, maybe it is because I now have children of my own, maybe it is because I live with so many of my students and I feel for them in a way that is noticeably different than my other school experiences. Whatever the reason (or combination of reasons) I find myself troubled by the idea of giving these kids a quiz tomorrow when we have discussed a section for three days and they were only here for one of those days. I know that they could have gotten back sooner, I know that they are seniors and should be responsible. I also know that they are pretty bright kids and might very well perform at a reasonable level tomorrow. I am not feeling that this will happen and it feels to me that a disciplinary mistake will turn into an academic grade punishment. I don’t think that I feel good about this. On the other hand (there always seems to be that ‘other hand’ doesn’t there?) if I give them an extension I know that some of my students – those who came back on time, who were jet lagged or simply tired from travel, those students who would have enjoyed an extra day or two of vacation – would likely feel that students receiving extra time are receiving some extra advantage as a result of their irresponsible actions. I don’t want my students to feel that grades are some sort of competition or some sort of reward system, but I know that many inherently see it this way. For those students, it would seem to be an insult to have an extension offered here. It might even be another sign to them that they should try to ‘game the system’ and take time off when it suits them. I know that I feel that grades should reflect the knowledge that a student is able to display. I don’t think that it should reflect good behavior or bad behavior. I think that there are avenues to recognize behavior issues that are separate from grades, but I also know that most schools feel that pressure on grades is the most effective way to get a students’ attention and the strongest lever we have to modify behavior.

Sigh, I know that there are no easy answers here. I would love to hear any comments here or tweets directed to @mrdardy to share how you deal with these issues. How does your school deal with behavior like this? Are you bound to school policies or do you have the freedom to make individual decisions? Please share your wisdom.

4 thoughts on “What Are Grades Supposed to Mean?”

  1. I am not in your specific situation, but I do have students who take extended vacations (some families take month-long trips to visit relatives on the other side of the world, the only way it makes sense for them to travel), who miss a lot of work. I try to balance my classroom requirements against what the student may not have had complete control over (a 15 year old doesn’t determine whether or not their family spends a month in Pakistan, or even if their parents plan a 2 week luxury vacation which may pull them out of school). On the other hand, I know that there is [usually] internet available, and that all class notes and assignments are regularly posted on my school website. Even though the students are seniors, did their parents have a role in their returning to school late? On the other hand, their returning late means you may have to design a second quiz – are you okay with that? (I have a student who just returned after 2 weeks away – with no advance notice – on (1) a field trip, (2) a ballroom dance competition out of state and (3) a family cruise. She missed an exam which was already returned, and now the problem of how to assess her is mine. I struggled with how to deal with this, especially because grades were due for 2nd marking period report cards today – trying to balance what I think she could have done during this self-selected vacation with what she had no control over. I haven’t completely figured it out yet. But these are lines along which I am thinking. (Sorry for running on; your post clearly hit a nerve…)

    1. Whenever a student is absent on an assessment day they take a different quiz or test than their classmates took. That only seems fair to me – well, fair to the other students, not fair to me who has extra work to do!
      I do have situations where I’ll just use one less grade for a student so that their denominator at the end of the term is different. I did this last term for a girl who broke her arm in a soccer game and missed two days of school dealing with the pain. No problem with that. This situation, however, involves a directive from administration. So I am reluctant to just defy this.

      Thanks for chiming in!

  2. Is it enough students that postponing for everyone would make sense? But then again, I’m a stickler for no school/no scouts so I would probably have an issue with those kids getting what could be perceived as an extra break. If it’s a small quiz, I may just let the chips fall and maybe it will give them a lesson they will need next year when skipping class is much easier!

    We have sort of the same issue at our school..you can’t put a grade other than zero for an unexcused absence, even if the kid makes up the work. What is that proving?

    1. I have 34 Stats students and only two in this situation. I have a third who is missing tomorrow because he has to travel for a passport. I am guessing that that situation is probably not very much in his control. I think the policies about zeros and such are there to ‘teach responsibility’ or something like that. I have a problem also with teachers who deduct points from students who take assessments late. Even if the absence is unexcused, I do not want that to be part of their grade. Although, I suppose, that the extra time to prep becomes part of their grade. Oh man, I can twist myself into a pretzel over these debates.

      Thanks for dropping by!

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