Students learn less if they don't do their homework. And many of them won't do their homework if they aren't graded on it. But in the name of "equity," Arlington County Public Schools is likely to abolish grades for homework, which will result in students studying and learning less. Arlington is also considering letting students have "unlimited redoes and retakes on" assignments they fail, reports ABC Channel 7.
The Washington Post's Jay Mathews discusses these proposed changes in his column, "Abolishing grades on homework will hurt the neediest kids":
"Arlington County is studying proposals that would, among other things, remove penalties for missing homework deadlines and prohibit grading of what is called formative work — daily assignments. Faculty would grade only what are called summative assessments, which generally means tests.
"Teachers at Arlington’s Wakefield High School, a successful campus where half of the students come from low-income families, have sent a letter to the county school board and superintendent denouncing the proposals. '...we completely disagree with the proposal that none of the formative work should be counted,' they said. 'It is very likely that students who do not complete or do a poor job with formative assessments will not do well on summative assessments either.… Anecdotally, the Spring 2020 virtual learning experiment during the pandemic taught most of us that students do not, will not, complete work if it is not for a grade.”...
"A letter from Arlington schools Superintendent Francisco Durán to a Wakefield staff member who signed the protest letter said the proposals for changes in grading and homework rules 'were crafted based on the feedback Academics and School Support staff received from the School Board to focus on more equitable grading practices.'"
Mathews says that if graded homework is abolished, that would be a "catastrophe" that would harm the "quality" of Arlington's schools, which currently are better than the national average.
I know from my own experience as a student that I was less likely to do homework when it was not graded, and less likely to do it thoroughly or adequately when the grade counted for very little. As a father, I have observed that less effort is put into homework when it is virtually ungraded. So the Wakefield teachers are right to say that there are students who "will not complete work if it is not for a grade."
Moreover, this unfinished homework results in substantial lost learning. When I did not spend much time doing homework in my classes, I would end up cramming for an exam to try to make up for it. But I simply did not master subjects as well by cramming right before an exam, as I did in other classes where I did homework regularly, but then studied less right before the exam. Last-minute study cannot make up for a failure to learn regularly. Just as a house needs a sound foundation and layer-by-layer construction rather than being thrown up at the last minute, learning needs to take place day by day, sequence by sequence, to build on itself.
Even when students can pass a test despite doing no homework, it sometimes fails to show mastery of the subject. I remember nothing of "secured transactions," a class I took at Harvard Law School that had no homework, assignments, or intermediate exams. I studied only right before the final exam, the only graded assessment in the class, and after passing the exam with a lackluster grade, promptly forgot almost everything I had studied. The information I temporarily absorbed through last-minute studying and cramming soon dissipated like a flash flood in the desert. It was as if my mind vomited out all knowledge of secured transactions, in reaction to being forced to learn it all at once. I suspect that if the professor had assigned me homework -- such as drafting legal forms or a security agreement -- I would remember something from the course, and thus know something useful about the law governing secured transactions.
My waiting until the last minute to study may not have been typical for Harvard Law students. My classmates there were so disciplined and given to advanced planning that it sometimes seemed like they had planned their careers since kindergarten.
But such procrastination is commonplace for normal people, such as undergraduates and -- even more so -- K-12 students. Students in the public schools, unlike privileged law students, often come from working-class backgrounds where busy parents are not monitoring their daily educational progress. These busy parents will be blindsided when students get failing test scores after not doing their ungraded homework.
As Mathews notes, getting rid of homework is likely to hurt disadvantaged kids most, resulting in less rather than more equity:
"The Wakefield teachers who wrote the letter understand that the many children of county residents who did not go to college are likely to be hurt most by lowered expectations. The teachers said: 'Students who come from families which are not as ‘savvy’ or ‘aware’ will be subject to further disadvantage because they will not be held accountable for not completing their homework assignments and/or formative assessments according to the deadlines set by their teachers.'”
The proposed abolition of graded homework hasn't gone into effect yet, or even been formally submitted to the school board. So if enough parents object to abolishing graded homework, maybe the school board will reject it. District spokesman Frank Bellavia says the Arlington County Public Schools are still “in the early stages of revising the grading and homework policies and policy implementation procedures.” The Arlington school board can be reached by email (at firstname.lastname@example.org).
Hans Bader practices law in Washington, D.C. After studying economics and history at the University of Virginia and law at Harvard, he practiced civil-rights, international-trade, and constitutional law. He also once worked in the Education Department.