Gearing up for exams…you earn an A based on homework
In a twist on the traditional concept of “grades,” schools across the country are allowing students to earn a grade based on their actions within a classroom—but not how they perform on tests.
Not all educators are on board with the concept, which has been seen at experimental schools like Venice High School in Venice, California, since 2011, but if teachers are giving students an A for homework, or for following instructions, they earn one. From there, teachers can assign individualized achievement grades (often in B, C, D, and higher letters) and even awards.
Whether the teachers see the grades as a chance to give extra praise to their most diligent students or to motivate students to achieve more academic success is a matter of perspective. But what’s certain is that since the program was introduced, some students have tripled their grade point averages.
The first schools to experiment with the concept were schools in San Diego where it has become standard to grade homework and assignments based on the take-home behavior of teachers, as well as to provide incentives for mastery of a set number of courses. But ultimately the change made at Los Angeles High School came from the personal mind of a principal, whose 2010 video explaining the concept won the school’s Alumni Magazine Best Presentation award.
His video shows a group of high school students complaining about their grades, a trap all too common among teens. As part of an attempt to turn the tide, he held a second brainstorming session on what he felt the school could do to improve grades.
The ensuing proposal was born, and around 400 teachers were able to participate in training on the concept before it went into effect for the 2014-2015 school year.
Vincent Chiaravalloti, who has been principal at Los Angeles High School for the past five years, says that until this year, the school started each school year by talking about new ideas, ranking issues, and then teaching from those assignments. Students knew they might earn a lower grade by carrying out a task poorly, but Chiaravalloti also points out the benefits of lowering the grades, when it helps students set new goals, find new inspiration to make more progress, and work toward them.
“The average student grades for their classes fluctuate depending on what the teachers are looking for in terms of students to complete a certain task,” Chiaravalloti says. “With this system, it is more consistent with rewards. Students are more interested in what they can do.”
And the effort is paying off for some students. Denise Tsouras, the school’s director of guidance, says that as a student in her junior year, she was able to improve by three grades as a result of the incentive-based grading. And she set a goal: to become valedictorian of her class, something no one else had accomplished. Now, she is, and hopes to go on to graduate from her college majoring in pharmacy. “My group of senior girls,” she says, “we all have big goals. I am hoping to be the first one who is valedictorian.”
Meanwhile, professional development events at Venice High School have seen some student excellence, including when Elisa Aguirre, a junior, scored the highest out of over 1,200 girls when she won the school’s Essay Contest last year.
Chirag Unnikrishnan, an eighth grade English teacher at the school, recalls his own approach to “A for effort” grades: “I gave it a cool letter grade, which was better for motivation,” he says. “Students liked it. They started internalizing the way they were taught in the classroom and they worked harder to achieve what they needed to do. They would finish their homework a lot quicker because they didn’t have to wait for a mark, which has made the grades higher and higher.”
But for some, the incentive can backfire. “I can see the good side and the bad side of this system,” says Anthony Velasquez, a sixth grade math teacher at the school. “On the good side, if students did well on their tests and it went well for the school, but on the bad side, if they did not show enough to earn an A, they would get low grades anyway. So this is not a good intervention for the students. Students that do well are just getting people looking for them in other classes.”
Chiaravalloti agrees that there could be some negative side effects with the GPA system: “The problem is that students will show the A or C they got in class, but they will not be proud of it. So they would tend to do worse in other classes.”
He suggests the implementation of bonus points or percentiles for improved performance in other classes or subjects. But for now, the system