A Drastic Grade Policy

In a stack of papers called Writing.

  • Mar
  • 26
  • 2007

My juniors spent about 2 months working on timed writing. The rubric I use is based on the SAT rubric and the English Placement Test rubric for the state college system. We are preparing for two fairly significant tests in their academic future and reasoning skills needed in their employment future. We wrote paragraphs, examined samples, rifled through the rubric, and sketched skeletons of arguments every day. When the assessment day came, the results were terrible, the writing awful, and the thinking shallow. Only about 23% of students passed (13 out of 56). This was bad.

Partially My Fault

I am not one, however, that believes I am to blame for all of that failure. I am certainly not free of blame, but neither are the students. And students need to know that they have that power to change their grade and that their writing matters. So I decided to do something drastic.

Second Assessment

The following week, we had another assessment similar to the first. We continued daily writing targeted at strategies for timed writing and I gave some preparation tips: use the daily writing as a chance to defend your arguments, read more, pick one thing you believe in each day and write a page about why you believe it, read more, review the samples I gave out and the comments you wrote on them, read more, look through the rubric, read more.

Impact On The Grade

I told students that they would fail the course for the current grade period if they didn’t pass this second assessment. And if they passed this assessment, they’d pass the course for the grade period. Even if they had a 36% (and two students took advantage of that and are now passing). The last day of the grade period was that Friday.

Yes, I rested grades on a single assessment. Yes, I stand by that decision.

Instead of a failing grade, though, I ended up only levying a 10% grade drop for all those students who failed this assessment, to be lifted once they pass this style of writing (I wasn’t comfortable with how this impacted the grades otherwise). The pass rate jumped up to 48% (27 out of 56). Still not great, but better.

Third Assessment

The following week, we had yet another similar assessment, this time given by the state college system. For those students who failed previous assessments, I read their responses before sending them off to the state. Eight of the remaining 29 students passed. Since this was a 45-minute assessment, as opposed to the previous 25-minute assessments I’d given, I merely lifted the 10% penalty from their grade, though they still received a failing grade for this writing style in the gradebook.

This got us up to 62% passing (sort of, since that last assessment wasn’t exactly the same as the preceding two). I’ll be giving another assessment this week. With an increasingly small batch of essays to read each time, it’s not tough to give the 25-minute assessment, grade it, and return it all within a few days.

I’m seeing just about a 25% pass rate every time and that doesn’t make me happy. A few other teachers have commented on how weak our junior class is, so at least I know my expectations are not completely out of whack. Still, have we finally hit the generation that has absolutely zero connection to the literature we’ve read for centuries? We’ve begun a unit on civil disobedience and I need to figure out a way for these texts to mean something to the students. What I’ve done in the past isn’t working and neither are most of my new ideas this year. Success is sporadic and seemingly without a pattern.

Here It Is

Essentially what I’m saying is this: juniors need to be able to state an opinion and defend it at the drop of a hat with at least minimum competency. A student who writes a 3 or lower should receive a 10% grade drop. A student with a 75% who writes a 5 on the essay should receive a 10% grade bump. I see no reason for a student earning an 85% and who earns a 4 on the essay to receive a grade bump, but neither should that student receive a grade drop; writing that is passing but equal to or less than the grade in the class is a wash.

I’m seeing students pay more attention to what they write as they realize that it directly impacts their grade. Writing is 50% of the grade in my class, so it’s always been important, but this new policy adds more immediacy to it. I plan to do this twice toward the end of each grade period, so students have two chances to pass each time. If I keep to the 10% bump or drop, students won’t be able to use this writing as an excuse to shine the rest of the course.

Then again, if I allow students earning an F (no matter the degree) to use this essay as a way to earn a D, that might give everyone a fighting chance for the entire year. Currently, if a student has an F by the end of April, it’s a mathematical impossibility for that student to pass. This writing could change that.

Tell me what you think.


1. Elona says:

[4/12/2007 - 4:18 am]

You are doing such a great job of trying to get the kids motivated. I know, it’s not an easy task. I’m having similar problems with my really weak grade nine math students. They tax my creativity too.

2. Anonymous says:

[2/26/2008 - 6:44 pm]

This is not creative. It is bribery. This is not increasing intrinsic motivating, it is increasing external motivation. It is proven that once the external incentive is removed these kids will forget everything and have even less motivation (loss of intrinsic motivation and loss of external motivation). This teaching method will only detriment the students’ future education.

3. Todd says:

[2/26/2008 - 7:41 pm]

Who said anything about intrinsic versus extrinsic? I just needed my students to take the assessment more seriously and put forth greater effort at improving.

If you care to explain yourself a bit more, I might be able to see your point. I’d like to hear your ideas on how to increase intrinsic motivation about reading and writing without any kind of extrinsic element. It’s a hard sell to convince kids to write and read more because it’ll make them feel better inside. That said, what would you have done in my situation?

Students started to perform better on the writing assessment once they saw that they couldn’t put something coherent together in the span of 20 minutes. Many students genuinely cared that they couldn’t write when asked. They felt bad that they were among the ones still left writing, more due to their own recognition of a lack of skill than embarrassment.

Where’s the proof you mention in forgetting things due to the removal of extrinsic motivators? Further, where’s your proof that this will be a detriment to their academic future? After being told for so many years, “No dessert if you don’t eat your vegetables,” didn’t you finally realize that vegetables are good and good for you? Sometimes it takes extrinsic motivators to force action that you’ll later recognize as worth your while.

Intrinsic is obviously the goal. But we’re often faced with classrooms full of reluctant writers and proud non-readers. Failing the inner motivation, I’m not ashamed to manipulate extrinsic factors in order to see the level of work I want/need. I’m sorry you see my methods as so harsh and malevolent.