Sunday, April 11, 2010

Points, Anti-Points, and Extra Points

Most grades in a modern American high school are awarded on the basis of points. Students are awarded points for completing homework assignments, projects, and tests. In some classes points are also awarded for various forms of "participation." Generally, activities deemed more important by the instructor are awarded larger numbers of points than other activities. But when you look at the final grade on a report card, are you truly seeing a simple accumulation of points earned by that student?

    One of the biggest problems I see with this sort of system is that there are actually "negative" points hidden within the final letter grade assigned to any single student. These anti-points are usually based upon behavior and can have dramatic impacts on achievement. For example, students are often penalized for turning assignments in late. I used to deduct 10% of the overall points possible for every day a major project was turned in late. A perfect project turned in five days late resulted in a failing grade.

    Another example of anti-points occurs when we average retakes on assessments with older scores. For example, a student takes a test and gets a 50%, then retakes the same exam and gets a 100%. When a student's new test score is averaged into the old test score, you are actually doing two things. First, you are reporting the number of points the student accumulated on the second exam. You are then penalizing the same student for the points that he or she missed on the first exam. This communicates to your students that simply learning the concepts and skills on the test is not enough to erase the taint of failing the exam the first time.

Another example of hidden points can be found in the practice of assigning points for participating in classroom discussions or activities. Students who raise their hand often, ask pertinent questions, and express enthusiasm and interest in the subject matter are rewarded with points. Students who are withdrawn, tardy, apathetic, or absent find themselves penalized by losing valuable participation points. The idea behind this is to reward positive behavior which, in the minds of teachers, will ultimately result in higher academic achievement on exams. The reality is that high-achieving students will throw their arms out of joint in the effort to ask questions during class and earn their participation points while struggling students will stare silently, sleep, or goof around despite the fact that they are losing points every time they engage in such behavior.

    Finally, there's the phenomenon of extra-credit. These points, awarded for a hazy collection of projects and assignments given outside of the normal curriculum, can magically turn B's to A's and F's to C's. Extra credit points may be awarded for advanced activities that only the most high-achieving students can attempt. It is also common to see extra credit awarded for relatively easy, time-intensive activities that low-achieving students can complete who need to boost their grades at the last minute. The end result is that extra credit traditionally rewards students who already have A's while artificially inflating grades for low-achieving students who have not really improved their mastery of a course's learning goals.

    There's a big problem with all of these systems of anti-points and extra-credit points: if our goal as teachers is to create positive changes in student behavior and achievement, such point-based systems are an abject failure. They reinforce pre-existing behaviors (both positive and negative) while doing little to produce any sort of meaningful change or growth.

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