Last year an engineer received an important assignment. The project was to build a bridge. He put in hours of time–even more than his boss required. He worked for months. He spent hours at the office viewing and reviewing plans. He spent 12-hour days on site telling the builders exactly what to do. He went home exhausted every night, but satisfied with his work. When the bridge was finally finished, the day before it opened to traffic, it collapsed due to a design flaw. Such a flaw could have been potentially life threatening had the bridge crumbled while cars were whizzing across it.
Recently, I attended a presentation about the upcoming PARCC assessment and how to properly prepare our students for it. The presenter reiterated the fact that if a student answers a question incorrectly, s/he receives no credit for the answer. This idea is nothing new for multiple choice questions. We all know there is one right answer, but the rule also applies to the writing portion of the assessment. It doesn’t matter how much time or effort the student puts into answering the question. If it’s wrong, it’s wrong.
This got me thinking about my grading practices. I always offer partial credit on what I can. I think that a grade should reflect if a student is on their way to achieving a standard or approaching mastery of a skill, but this tidbit of “wrong is wrong” keeps nagging at me. Consider our engineer, his bridge, and its design flaw. It doesn’t matter that he put hundreds of hours of time and copious amounts of effort into his project, all that matters is that the bridge that he designed was not successful. His “mistake” could have cost people their lives. Now I’m not saying our students’ assessments are life or death situations, but I am proposing that we look into making sure our students “get it right” no matter what they are working on.
In English class there are times when there are no “right” or “wrong” answers, and that same sentiment is felt throughout all disciplines at one time or another. So for the sake of defining right and wrong, I will explain a bit about how I run things. For example, in my class I often have students work on making a claim and defending it with strong evidence and clear reasoning. The combination of these two things–strong evidence and valid reasoning–make an answer “right”.
But there comes a time when the evidence given is not strong enough and the reasoning is not clear enough in order for a claim to be supported. This makes an answer “wrong”. At this point it is my job to make sure my students know that weak evidence and incoherent reasoning are not acceptable. (Note: poor evidence and unclear reasoning may not result because of insincere effort or because students were lazy– unfortunately this happens–but it could be because students simply have not mastered the necessary skills in order to provide the proper evidence and reasoning needed to prove their claim.)
I have decided that because “wrong is wrong” (which you can’t dispute, especially if you believe that bridges should be well-made) I am going to have to hold my students more accountable for the work they turn in. Sometimes, and yes, I admit it, if I know a student worked hard, I will let certain mistakes slide: “S/he worked really hard and deserves this grade.” But this needs to stop. That student did not deserve that grade, because their work was not correct. (See Why Grades Fail Our Students for more insight on the topic of fair grading.) I’m doing nothing but an injustice to those students who hand in work that is “wrong”. We can no longer allow “effort” to become a part of our evaluation system. There are students who walk into my class and master certain skills right away, while there are others who come in and need extra help with a skill. The effort each student puts into their work differs, but ultimately, it’s the outcome that matters. Their bridge is either going to stand or collapse. It’s my job to help them make a strong one that holds traffic, stands in even the worst weather, and won’t cost any unnecessary funds or take innocent lives. I do that by helping them master all the work in between being introduced to a skill and showing mastery of it.
The point is this: The end product, or summative assessment, is not always directly proportionate to the amount of time and effort a person puts into their work. We need to keep this in mind when we are offering students feedback, when we are grading their work, asking them to redo work, and evaluating their levels of mastery concerning particular skills. Remember, effort does not equal correctness. (Please don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying persistence and concentration are bad qualities, I value them very much!) But we need to recognize the difference between dedication and diligence and true achievement. (They are mutually exclusive.) Then, we need to establish a norm in our classrooms that supports students on their way to mastery through truly learning and using brain power as opposed to showing them that time and effort spent on something equals mastery. Because even though time spent and hard work will get the project done, the bridge still has to stand.