Extra Credit Diminishes Everything And Everyone

About a month or so ago, one of my ninth graders brought up a great topic that was inspired by our reading of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian by Sherman Alexie. In this particular passage, Junior throws his textbook out of anger, but states that he never intended to hit his teacher with the book. On the day we were reading that particular passage, one young man said, “intentions don’t matter; he still hit the teacher. That was the result. Results are all that matters.”

The debate instantly happened as kids brought up the idea of doing something in an attempt to be nice or to improve things. But, this young man held his position and actually swayed a few more classmates to his side.

That led to the full Socratic Seminar for the following week with the question, “does intention matter?” as the starter for conversation. Students used the book as their jumping off point, recalling Junior’s intentions when he asked his friend, Rowdy, to go to the new school with him, Junior’s Father and his battle with alcohol, and, of course, when Junior threw the textbook out of anger. Eventually, that led to them relating this debate to their own lives, citing evidence about so many situations such as their parents trying to protect them, their friendship happenings, or their teachers thinking homework was good for them.

That last one stuck with me.

Of course it stuck with me.

I write about homework a lot and think it is one of the most misused practices in education. It is a practice that is based on many falsehoods. Those falsehoods, however, are rooted in good intentions. We want to foster responsibility, determination, a love of learning, and a desire to go further. All of those are great intentions; it’s what we want for all kids.

Many believe that homework fosters all of those qualities.

Many are wrong.

But, almost every teacher has good intentions when they give homework. The intentions are good, but the results are far from good. The results, in many cases, are damaging.

A few days after that Socratic Seminar, one of my 10th grade students came into my office quite upset. This student is one of our high achievers and will be one of those people who could literally choose any field and be successful. But, that day, this student was quite upset about the number on the grade portal. It wasn’t about my class, but the student came in, looking to vent as well as have a place to complete some work.

After venting about everything that needed to be done, the student began to work. It turns out that there was about 15 minutes left before a teacher would accept an extra credit assignment. The student was frantic; the teacher had given the extra credit assignment out earlier in the week, but this student had two academic competitions that ran until 9:00 PM each night and the usual three to four hours of homework that included those extensive outlines, packets, and dittos.

“It’s not fair that other kids who aren’t as busy as me will get this extra credit and I probably will miss the deadline.”

That is, without a doubt, one hundred percent correct.

It is not fair.

The teacher’s intentions were good. They wanted to give students an opportunity late in the quarter to raise their grades. They know that they gave challenging work and, perhaps, student knowledge didn’t necessarily correlate to performance on tests. So, the well intentioned teacher offered a relatively simple, but time consuming extra credit assignment to boost that number.

The intention of extra credit is good. It is a long standing practice that is not meant to hurt kids. Teachers are trying to help kids by offering extra assignments that are easier than the work they are giving in class. They care. The intentions are most definitely good.

The problem is that the results are so very bad.

Despite the very good intentions behind giving extra credit, the results are damaging to just about every aspect of education. It is damaging in the message it gives out, the position it puts many kids in, the impact on the meaning of grades, and real mastery.

Right Intention, Wrong Message

Extra credit buys a teacher some positive vibes with their students and parents. Whenever a teacher just adds some points onto an average or cancels out one of the real assignments/assessments from the quarter, everyone is happy. They are happy in that moment.

But, that short term happiness is no justification for the message that is projected. Giving extra credit and altering a grade based on an assignment that had little to do with what was taught—and often not at all—gives the message that the work done in class wasn’t important. The need to master those skills isn’t important. All that matters is the number on the report card. So, rather than truly work at the skills, let’s give something extra, something lighter to boost that number. The skills we teach in the classroom should be the focus. Once something extra is given to boost a number, that focus is diminished.

Worse, many teachers will offer extra credit to kids in exchange for bringing in tissues and other supplies for the classroom. Again, what is the message being projected through this? Bring supplies, do better in my class?

Those teachers who give extra credit that is related to their curriculum will point to that last example and say, “well, that’s not what I do. My extra credit is related to our work.”

Well, the intentions are certainly more thought out, but the message is still the same. The work completed and the skills developed for the class can be overridden by something outside of the course’s work. In other words, what we did might have been somewhat important, but it isn’t important enough that a quick, little extra project or a box of tissues, can’t cancel it out.

If we want students to value our class, to truly work on the skills we are trying to teach, we must make that work and those skills the only determining factors when it comes to grade calculation and, more importantly, to the message we project about our class.

Puts Some Kids At A Disadvantage

One of the problems I have with homework is that it puts some kids at a disadvantage. There are many kids who don’t have the resources at home that allow them to complete assignments the same way as kids who have those resources. Many kids do not have their parents available or the financial resources to complete assignments. And then, of course, there is always a question with homework regarding how much of the results are truly the product of the students.

The same argument can be applied to extra credit. With students already receiving quite a bit of work, an extra assignment requires more time and, perhaps, more resources. Is it fair to a kid who doesn’t have the support at home to lose out on an opportunity?

Even something as harmless as bringing in a box of tissues puts some kids at a disadvantage. What if a family can’t afford to buy anything extra? There are many families who are barely surviving, barely getting enough food on their tables. Yet, these kids show up every day to school. And, the first message they get is, because of their circumstance, they won’t get the same opportunity as someone who has more money. Education is supposed to be the great equalizer. Yet, extra points in exchange for classroom supplies simply highlights a divide. They are behind before they even start.

Kids without supports at home or without the economic means to complete extra credit tasks or assignments are put at a disadvantage. Some may argue that this is optional, and, as the term implies, extra.

But, are we saying that extra only applies to those with means?

That certainly is not the intention. It is, however, the result.

Devalues Grade

The purpose of education is to prepare kids for the world. We want them to pursue passions, develop interests, and become those creative problem solvers that we desperately need them to be. While I would argue that grades don’t need to be a part of that process, we are, for the time being, stuck with giving kids a grade for their course. That grade often determines class placement for the following year, honor roll and principal roll designation, and that whole college process thing that everyone talks so much about.

Because we are still stuck with grades, we must do everything in our power to make sure they are an accurate reflection of student mastery of the skills set forth in the standards. There should not be anything outside of actual performance and mastery that determine a grade. It is why homework should not be incorporated into an average. As stated earlier, there is absolutely zero guarantee that the homework was the work of that particular student. And, perhaps even more importantly, a grade that comes from practice lessens the impact on the grades that do show actual performance.

That argument can be applied to extra credit. Once a teacher begins to add extra credit to an average, that average is meaningless as it is no longer about the standards and skills. It is especially meaningless because it is a result of an activity outside of the graded work. A student could raise an average from a B to an A just because of something outside of the stated assessed work. Or, a student could go from a 92, a very good average, to a 96 because of extra credit.

Again, numbers should be meaningless when it comes to learning. But, if we are stuck with this current system, this practice of adding points makes grades illogical, misleading, and even less meaningful than they are already.

Costs Kids

In theory, extra credit makes no sense. But, sometimes theory and actual practice don’t unite. In the case of extra credit, both theory and actual practice agree. Extra credit can actually cost kids in both academic standing and in an economics sense.

With some students being offered extra credit, their averages inflate, thus moving them up in their class rank. If another student has a group of teachers who do not give extra credit, this is an unfair practice. Where it becomes even more costly is when colleges determine financial aid packages.

Merit scholarships are typically given out to students with high GPA’s and high class rank. Obviously, the higher the rank, the more money a student will receive in merit scholarship money or whatever academic awards colleges might offer.

The difference between being a student who ranked in the top 10 percent of their class and one who was the first student in the 11th percentile could be, at least, quite conservatively speaking, $10,000 per year. If extra credit was the determining difference between a student who ranked 10th and the other who ranked 11th, the well intentioned practice not only gave one kid an even more inaccurate grade, it just cost another kid quite a bit of money. As teachers, we must be more mindful of what a grade actually means to a kid and a family once they leave us.

Again, we are supposed to be in the business of helping kids learn and realize their dreams. Giving every student a fair chance to access opportunity is one of the cornerstones of the profession. Extra credit creates an inequity that can actually take away opportunity. For something that isn’t based in any sort of sound educational practice, it is criminal that we allow this well intentioned idea to actually sabotage kids.

Doing Better Than Extra Credit

We must do better. And, we can. It does require a little bit more of an effort, but if we want to truly prepare kids for life, we owe them more. We should not be giving them anything. Instead, we should be making them actually prove that they have mastered our content.

Redo

The idea of giving a redo is perhaps the single most misunderstood concept in education. On more than one occasion, I have been told that I am soft on kids, that I never take the hard line with them.

I’ll argue that in most cases, my students are working far harder for me than they are for most. While it may not seem like it in terms of workload because of my lack of dittos, required annotations/reading logs, and homework, the assessed work is that of value. And, I want students to continue to work on it until they show mastery.

That includes rewriting essays until they received the highest scores on the rubric in every area. That includes looking at projects again, completing the elements that were missing. It includes redoing most assessments. Sure, we still have a few “one and done” assessments, but those are given after multiple opportunities to practice, complete other process driven assessments, and redos of those assessments. In other words, students are really prepared for those.

Redos are not easy. It isn’t easy for a student to go back to something they’ve worked on. It isn’t easy for a student to go back to something where they didn’t experience much success. And, it certainly isn’t easy for the teacher to keep going back to assess work.

It is certainly easier to just give extra credit and boost a grade. That easy way won’t likely be resisted by parents, students, or even most administrators. Grades will be good; everyone will be happy. That intention of reward will result in happiness.

Except, that it undercuts everything that we should be about in our industry. If we want to make our assessments meaningful and, thus, our grades a true indication of what the student has learned, we must employ a redo policy. This will allow students to earn grades that better accurately portray their performance level.

Extra credit tells everyone that the number, the grade on the report card, is the only thing that matters. Extra credit falls under the category of “by any means necessary” in that a student and teacher agreed to go outside of the scope of regular work in order to boost a number. Extra credit takes the burden off of having to work to master a skill.

A redo tells everyone that the work assigned in class is so important that we will keep going back to these writings, these assessments, until you show it is mastered. A redo says that our work is important. A redo says that the process of learning is the most important. We don’t expect it to be linear and we won’t just abandon it so we, the teacher and student, have an easier path to achieve a number. A redo allows a teacher to give a grade that more accurately shows how a student is mastering content. A redo is fair for everyone because it is the work expected from everyone.

Closing Thought

My freshman student was correct. In the end, intentions don’t really matter. While practices like extra credit are done with the very best of intentions, the results are damaging to kids. It damages student learning. It damages the importance of that learning and what we do in our classrooms. It damages accuracy of grades. It further damages the divide between students with means and those without. And, it potentially damages students in terms of academic standing and financial aid.

The temporary happiness of the practice does not come close to outweighing all of those flaws. Like homework, we must look past the institution of tradition to properly evaluate the impact of this long standing practice. We must do everything in our power to make learning the focus of what we do. We can’t do that by just giving extra points. We can, however, accomplish this by pushing students to continue to redo their work. When we do that, we will get the results we are all—students, parents, and teachers—are looking for.