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.