Potsdam axes controversial policy that banned teachers from issuing zeros for uncompleted homework
Sunday, October 7, 2012 - 8:17 am

By JIMMY LAWTON

POTSDAM -- A controversial homework policy that banned teachers from issuing zeros at Potsdam High School has been thrown out.

The policy was originally designed to grade students on mastery of subject knowledge, instead of offering higher marks to those who completed all homework and “extra credit” assignments. Passed in 2010, it drew attention from the New York Times as well as a diverse mix of criticism and support from district residents.

Under the policy, formative homework assignments, or assignments used to teach students new material, could count for only 10 percent of a student's grade. The policy also restricted teachers from issuing zeros for incomplete work. The lowest grade students could receive on these assignments was 50 percent.

The new policy allows formative assignments to count for as much as 20 percent of a student’s overall grade and zeros can be issued for work that is not turned in.

In an extreme case in which a student received perfect 100 percent grades on in-class work, but turned in no homework, the final grade would be 80 under the current policy. However, it would have been as high as 95 under the former, controversial policy.

More Incentive For Students

Superintendent Patrick Brady said the new plan provides more incentive for students to complete assignments and maintains the same goal as the former policy.

"The board has spent a considerable amount of time reworking this policy. This was a compromise among committee members, but the spirit of the policy remains. We want student grades to be reflective of achievement," he said.

Brady said the idea behind the former policy was to ensure a student's grade reflected what he or she had learned. He said students might have understood the lessons without completing assigned work but the board wanted to separate the student’s behavioral issues from their grades.

"The key goal for the policy was to ensure grades reflected student achievement, not whether or not they completed assigned work," he said.

While the policy allowed students to forgo assignments with minimal impact on their grades, Brady said disciplinary action, aimed at getting the students to perform the work, was implemented.

"The board believes students should be given an opportunity to complete assignments that were not turned in and disciplinary consequences were introduced to provide time for them to complete the work," Brady said.

In a letter to North Country This Week in 2010 defending the “no zero” policy, Ann Carvill, who was a member of the school board at the time, said zeros on homework assignments did not properly reflect student ability. She also said zeros should not be accepted as teachers have an obligation to ensure students learn the material. Although she did not support the use of zeros, she said other actions could be implemented to ensure assignments were completed.

“Students who do not do their work should be required to so,” she said in her letter.

Despite the consequences, Brady said many students still refused to hand in homework, opting instead for a 50 percent on assignments that were incomplete.

Compromised Work Ethic

While the board defended the policy, some parents complained that the lack of a graded penalty for incomplete assignments compromised the student’s work ethic and reinforced the idea that not completing work was acceptable.

Carolyn Stone, a SUNY Potsdam literacy instructor was among them. In a 2010 interview with the New York Times she said the policy was unfair because it rewarded lazy students and penalized top achievers. “Do those who fit in the box of school do better? Yes. But to revamp the policy in a way that could be of detriment to the kids who do well is not the answer,” she said in the article.

While the policy was designed to improve grading, the unforeseen problems eventually led the board to reconsider the homework guidelines.

Brady said a committee chaired by board president Christopher Cowen was established to review and modify the homework policy. The committee included teachers, students, administrators, parents and board members hashed out a new policy over the course of several months.

According to Brady the new homework plan, implemented in September, was a compromise among committee members that maintained the same ideals as the former policy, but steepened penalties for students who did not complete work.

Under the former policy, summative assignments, or those used to assess student knowledge, could count for more than 10 percent of the students grade, but could not be scored lower than 50 percent.

The guidelines allowed teachers to determine which assignments were formative or summative.

The new policy now allows for zeros on summative assignments.