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What are we Really Grading Students on?

“Sorry,” the teacher said, “it’s really great work, but you didn’t turn it in on time, so unfortunately, the highest grade you can get is a D.” Does this sound familiar? It should. It’s what teachers and professors have been saying for decades. But, has anyone ever stopped to think about why students are penalized for turning in late assignments? If it’s “really great work” like the teacher said, then is the D an accurate representation of what the student knows or understands? No. The grade actually has nothing to do with the student’s capability or level of understanding. That’s because they’re being graded on whether or not they can turn in an assignment on time, not whether they have demonstrated understanding of a concept. Ok, so let’s stick with that premise, that students are actually being graded on their time management skills. So when are students explicitly taught these skills in school? The answer is: Never.

Throughout the pandemic, I have been working with students all over the country and one thing is clear – we are evaluating students on their executive function skills, but we’re not explicitly teaching them what those skills are or how to improve them. So, what are Executive Function skills? “Executive function skills are brain-based functions that help…regulate behavior, set and achieve goals, balance desires with responsibilities, and learn to function independently while also recognizing the need for guidance.” (Dawson, 2020). These functions develop in our prefrontal cortex as we grow, but are not fully developed until about age 25 in neurotypical adults and can be as late as age 30 in neurodiverse adults. What this tells us is that all neurotypical and neurodiverse students have some areas of weakness with their executive function skills.

Ok, yes, in the real world there are certainly deadlines that one has to meet or there will be consequences, but those are what we’d call natural consequences. If you miss the deadline to test your vehicle emissions, then you have to pay a late fee. However, even with the late fee, your car still passes inspection. Your car doesn’t fail inspection because it was tested late. So, why do students receive a failing grade when an assignment is turned in late? I believe it all comes down to clarifying purpose. Is the purpose of attending school to gain knowledge and better understand ourselves and the world around us or is it to know how to turn in work on time? Only after we agree on the purpose can we determine what the natural consequences should be.

What we should be instilling in students is the ability to self-advocate, communicate, manage their time, and a myriad of other executive function skills that will help them succeed in life. Instead of giving students a failing grade for a late assignment, we should be encouraging them to communicate with the teacher if they don’t feel they can meet a deadline. Then we praise them for their self-advocacy. Isn’t that what would happen in the workplace? If you can’t get a project done on time, you must proactively communicate with your client or boss so they know when to expect it. This is where we should be focusing students’ attention – on the actual skills they will need in the future and instilling in them the importance of being lifelong learners.

As a former public school teacher, I have experienced first-hand how difficult and demoralizing it can be to try to change the course of public education, but what better time to try to improve things than now? The pandemic has forever changed us – in so many ways. Most importantly, it has changed the way we work. As a result, employees entering the workforce in the next decade will need new skills, not just content knowledge. They will need to be able to monitor their own progress, work independently, be self-starters and problem-solvers, just to name a few. And what are these skills? Yes…Executive Function skills.

This does not have to be a new initiative on top of everything else that is being thrown at educators. Executive function skills can (and should) be easily inserted into the curriculum and taught through work the students are already completing. So, let us start thinking differently about how we are evaluating students’ progress. Let us be open-minded to new ideas and pedagogical approaches. Let us think about the purpose of attending school. The bottom line is this: We should not be penalizing students for skills we are not teaching them.

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Jaclyn Vincent/February 11, 2022

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Jennifer Raphael
3 months ago

Well said, Jackie!

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