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Letter to the editor

Letter to the editor


 Editor's note: Rick Wormeli is responding to several  lengthier letters to the editor about standards based learning/grading published in recent editions of the Summit. Wormeli's response will be published in a two-part letter to the editor Jan. 13 and Jan. 20. Wormeli's full letter will be posted on the Summit's website Jan. 20.

To the editor:

Contrary to one of the letter writers, there are penalties for late work: Doing the work. No rights and privileges are granted to students, and no credit is given, until the work is done.  All those things that make students happy are delayed until work and learning are done.  Students realize quickly, “I’m going to have to do it sooner or later, I might as well do it now, and have a hassle-free life.”  

In SBG, students get a separate grade on their capacity to meet deadlines, which elevates its importance. This is very demanding of students, not going easy on them. How does a zero or an “F” in balancing chemical equations when you actually understand it completely teach students to be disciplined with deadlines, to honor adults who care for you, or to be diligent in one’s work? Going through the maturing process of recovering from failures and bad decisions teaches more than labels for those failures ever could teach. With the removal of all hope of recovery, students realize, “Why bother?” Low grades breed resentment and excuses from students, and even worse, they don’t learn the material we’re supposed to teach them. Is that acceptable? No. Really learning content and skills is hard work and maturing.

In her December 9th letter, Carol Kleveland incorrectly states that SBG practices would allow students to do assignments whenever they want. There’s nothing farther from the truth. There are clear and direct consequences for not doing work in a timely manner, but the difference here is that we realize that distorting the accuracy of the report of student proficiency does not teach him to turn in his work on an assigned date. No teacher has any moral authority to knowingly falsify a grade. Parents should be outraged that a teacher would falsely raise or lower the report of what their child knows about Abraham Lincoln in a misguided attempt at classroom management. In a generation in which everyone gets a trophy for playing in the soccer game, we do not want to perpetuate a false sense of competence.

“Learn in the time frame and manner as everyone else, or I will hurt you,” has never been successful in k-12 teaching. If F’s and 0’s taught maturity so well, we’d have a lot more mature students, and we would be heralding the practice everywhere as the answer to what vexes us about adolescents. Notice, though, that we’re not doing that. If you’re interested, I’ve written articles on how to respond to late work issues, Executive Function, and other topics which describe how to build responsibility in students (see or look for them on-line). I also recommend the work of high school teacher, Larry Ferlazzo, who writes extensively about how to create self-motivated students. Anyone looking for research and practicality in these areas can find plenty under the topics of self-efficacy, self-determination theory, and fostering student independence.

‘Re-do’s for full credit? Of course. Every single high stakes exam we take in the working world for certification is allowed to be re-done for full credit: LSAT’s, MCAT’s, Bar exam, CPA exam, pilot’s license tests, driver’s license tests, auto mechanic certification exams, SAT/AP/ACT exams - all of them. Giving partial credit for something that demonstrates full competence is knowingly falsifying a grade, which is deeply unethical, and not one of us would tolerate that in the working world. If we trust the test’s validity in creating an accurate report of student proficiency, then we report the student’s real competence level. Imagine evaluating someone as excellent at their job and deserving of the highest rating, but we have to weave a report of incompetence from three years ago when they were first starting out into their evaluation. It brings the report down to a marginal level, and they are in danger of being let go. None of us are evaluated this way! The most recent evidence creates the most accurate report.

We also realize that there’s a big difference between what we do while students are learning versus how we evaluate their performance after becoming certified in the field. We can hold professionals accountable for high quality, on-time delivery once they are certified and in the field. Young students are by no means fully competent in their disciplines yet. It’s shocking ignorance that demands we teach morphing children and adolescents about high quality, on-time work habits best by one-and-done assessments, with F on the first attempt being the permanent record for all learning.

Read the training manuals for every branch of our military services: Every one of them advocates for re-learning/assessments for full certification in every skill necessary because incompetent soldiers are never acceptable. If it’s good enough for the United States Air Force, Marines, Army, Navy, and Coast Guard, it’s good enough for our community schooling.   

Regarding Kleveland’s Winnebago line workers analogies: How does she think those workers learned to get to work on time, to do their full jobs and not sit around drinking coffee on break, and to do high quality work each time?  It wasn’t from getting unrecoverable F’s in school.  Someone worked with them, not labeled them without hope of recovery.  A mentor told them they screwed up and helped them learn proper conduct and the needed skill sets. There’s a big difference here between insecure, morphing students coming to know content and maturing personally, and what we expect of fully trained, adult line workers. SBG practices actually cut to the chase and respond directly to building these solid work habits. Giving a student an unchangeable F is uninformed and a cop-out. It lets the student off the hook.  He may get grounded or be denied entrance to the school dance, but he doesn’t have to do the project or learn the material.  It’s a weak teacher who caves in so readily to a child’s immaturity.

Yes, don’t grade daily homework. Go to to see the impressive body of work on feedback and formative assessment, let alone the work of Dr. Cathy Vatterot (Re-thinking Homework), and the researchers listed above, and you’ll find ample evidence that good learning that comes from descriptive feedback is thwarted when we apply high stakes judgements, i.e. letter grades and percentages. Summative judgment shuts down the instructional effect of that feedback, and great educators agree: We can learn without grades, but we can’t learn without feedback. Even more interesting, it’s the feedback that motivates us the most, not the final mark.  

Think about our own work: When we are practicing a new skill such as learning a new records management program for our business, how to fix a building’s HVAC system, or how to litigate tort insurance law cases, we practice in advance without the high stakes attached to it. We want someone to give us feedback on how to improve what we’re doing and we practice some more. SBG advocates are protecting the powerful instruction that comes with practice (homework) and feedback. We report that process separately from the high stakes grade at the end of learning’s journey. Yes, some need more practice than others, or maybe a different route altogether, but the bottom line is what we know and can do here and now, at the end of the learning, not how we got there.  

Contrary to the letter writers, I never said to give students partial credit, even if they turn in nothing. I advocate recording an F, zero, an, “I” for incomplete, or a, “NTY – Not There Yet,” if no evidence of learning is presented. What Dr. Friesenborg would have found if she actually read all of my work and that of everyone else advocating for SBG is that each letter grade should have equal influence on the overall outcome, if we’re still forced to average grades. An F range of 60 points (0-59) when all other grades have a range of about 10 points (B = 80-89, for example) is mathematically and ethically reprehensible; it distorts our accurate reporting. In addition, one zero on that scale would require nine perfect 100’s in a row just to get up to a D level average. It’s too much of a skewing influence. Students think again, “Why bother?,” and ignorantly, some of their teachers look down on them with disdain. No adult would ever tolerate this kind of evaluation in their professional work place!

Just as we would never allow an A to have a 60-point skewing upwards influence, we shouldn’t let an F or any grade have a skewing downward influence. When students present no evidence of learning, we should record a “No evidence” in the gradebook, but it has to be on a scale in which the usual symbol, zero, doesn’t forfeit all learning and achievement for the rest of the year. Students are not getting something for having done nothing; they are getting an undeniable F. For more thinking on this, consider reading my piece co-written with Ken O’Connor in the November 2011 issue of ASCD’s Educational Leadership magazine. These approaches aren’t just my thinking; every assessment/grading expert advocates for getting rid of percentages and the skewing F. As conscientious educators who dove deeply into the practicalities and realities of daily classroom practice for decades, we probably know something about this worth considering.

And yes, let’s remove Honor Roll from middle schools as fast as we can.  Honor Roll hurts more than it helps. It’s usually done in schools to satisfy parents’ needs, not to meet students’ developmental needs. This is not an attempt to coddle students and protect their self-esteem, ‘a tired counter-argument trope so many who don’t study how adolescent brains learn like to use. It’s actually applying what we know from modern cognitive science on how to build engagement and tenacity in students, and it’s reflective of what we know about assessment and grading.  For more on this issue and other ways on how to affirm academic excellence, see my article, “Honor Roll? Really?” (

Kleveland needs to do a bit more research in another area, too: Yes, students can get into college with scores of 4, 3, 2, and 1. In fact, many colleges translate letter grades and percentages into those exact numbers in order to get a GPA comparable with other candidates. Many students, too, are coming from home schooling or independent schools where there are no letter grades, percentages or rubric numbers at all, ‘just extended, descriptive evidence of learning, and they are still getting into colleges and doing well.  See, Mark Barnes’ book, Assessment 3.0, and, De-Testing and De-Grading Schools, edited by Thomas and Bower (2nd edition due out in early 2016) for research and thinking on this.

Class Rank is falling out of favor with many college admissions committees, but schools can still calculate one if necessary, if a college asks. GPS calculated by local schools is also falling out of favor, too (See, “GPA’s are Meaningless,” USA Today, February 28, 2013).  As long as students have reasonable GPA’s, both universities are looking at rigor of coursework and students’ perseverance as keys to students’ likely success at their institutions.  We can represent students’ achievement in any way a college needs it to be for the admission’s process, but we don’t sacrifice modern, effective pedagogical practices in the k-12 learning experience.

Iowa is recognized not just a national leader, but a world leader, in standards-based learning, which includes standards-based assessment and grading.  Seriously, as I travel the world, people often mention Iowa as where they get some of their best ideas for standards-based assessment and reporting. Many of Iowa’s teachers and colleges are leading the way in conversation, research, and effective grading practices. Des Moines Public Schools is just one of many districts in Iowa getting it right.

            In your journey, I’m happy to help, as are most of the people I mentioned in this response. Please do right by the next generation, and make sure grades are accurate and undistorted, and that teachers have the tools to cultivate real maturation in students. It’s worth every extended conversation on the topic.

Rick Wormeli

Herndon, Virginia


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