George Lucas Educational Foundation
A student stands in the middle of a fog-shrouded road.
Formative Assessment

Eliminate Assessment Fog

To get a clear picture of student achievement from assessments, don’t give or take away points for things that aren’t related to the core content.

Driving at any speed on a foggy highway, when visibility is just beyond the end of the car, is scary. There’s no knowing what’s around the bend. The same can be said of assessments that include confusing data. They are accidents waiting to happen.

Lorna Earl, author of Assessment as Learning, says differentiation is “making sure that the right students get the right learning tasks at the right time. Once you have a sense of what each student holds as ‘given’ or ‘known’ and what he or she needs in order to learn, differentiation is no longer an option. It’s an obvious response.”

This definition reflects how important assessment is. At a fundamental level, we are differentiating when we act on accurate data to adapt instructional plans for a large group or to personalize for individuals and small groups. Because such planning takes time, it becomes critical that the assessments used in planning be free of logistical factors that create a fog around what learners truly know and do not know.

The alternative is a growing feeling of frustration and helplessness about our impact on learners’ academic growth when we focus on data that may not provide an accurate view of those learners. Here are some common examples of assessment fog and their solutions. My thinking on these issues has been influenced by Ken O’Connor’s book A Repair Kit for Grading.

Points Off for Spelling and Punctuation When Assessing Content

There is a place for teaching and assessing mechanics. Such assessment should be kept separate from data on content understanding. A student may know and be able to apply much about the laws of motion, yet be a poor writer. Taking mechanics into consideration on the final content grade could lead to the conclusion that the student has a poorer understanding of the science concepts than they actually do.

Solutions: Assess mechanics as part of formative feedback, and not as part of the grade. Use the results for additional coaching. Or place the results into a category or proficiency rating that is separate from the content grade. For example, a student’s understanding of the laws of motion may be “Proficient” and writing mechanics may be “Needs Development.”

Extra Credit for Non-academic Tasks

A student who attends an event like a choir or parent night should not get points added to their grade in math or English. This creates a false indication of academic success. Padding the grade could hide serious gaps in understanding of math concepts or reading comprehension. Extra credit is especially problematic as it tends to be focused on activities that are unrelated to the area of student need.

Solutions: Assign work in which students connect math concepts to music or write a review of parent night for English. Attending the event becomes practice that is used to make legitimate connections to the curriculum for accurate assessment. Replace extra credit with assignments that help students fill the gaps in their understanding. Consider using these assignments to replace lost points for specific assignments, or use them as a requirement for redoing a test or product that originally assessed progress, a practice common in gamification.

Points Off for Lateness or Missing Information

Often, teachers take points off when students forget to put their names or the date on assignments, as a way of teaching responsibility. If a student’s name is not on a paper, how can they claim credit? And later in life, a missing date or other related logistical information on a form could lead to a delay in service until such information is provided. Personal responsibility is important, but taking off points gives a false impression of the student’s proficiency in the academic skill being assessed.

Late work is another concern shared by many teachers. There is a tension between knowing what students have learned and getting paperwork (grading) completed. Teachers may wonder how they will manage if students wait until the end of the marking period to turn in all their late work.

When points are taken off for lateness, once again the result is that the penalty obscures the record for understanding the student’s academic skill level. And when late assignments are not accepted, there is no data available as to the learner’s progress. With no data, the teacher’s job is more difficult. And not accepting late work means the skill level of students already falling behind will go unknown until the next assessment opportunity. The time lost could be monumental for the teacher and the student.

Solutions: Have the student fix the missing information or correct the location of the details before credit is recorded. Responsibility is learned when the weak skill is practiced, with coaching. Learning requires timely practice or revision when a gap is found.

Taking off points for late assignments does not improve responsibility. It’s a punitive response to an issue that coaching may do a better job of addressing. Involve parents by having students get their signature on a form that indicates the lateness of the assignment, before the work is accepted. A variation of this is to have the student write a letter to their parents letting them know that the work is late, and returning the note to the teacher with a parent’s signature.

The Benefits of Reducing Assessment Fog

As they work to reduce assessment fog, teachers will experience less frustration in their instruction because students will be able to clearly demonstrate what they know and do not know. And students will benefit because supports will more closely address their needs.

Everybody wins.

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Christina Gil's picture
Christina Gil
Former Classroom Teacher, Current Homeschooler and Ecovillager

Love love love these points. Except for the lateness, and for a few reasons.
When a student passes in an assignment days after everyone else, what's to keep them from copying the work first?
Also, as an English teacher who assigned and graded somewhere around 2,000 pages of writing each quarter there is no way that I could have left it all for the last week.
And finally, I have to say that I think that letting students think that late is okay is doing them a huge disservice. Deadlines are often more important than the quality of the work--decent work done on time is better than excellent work done late in the real world.
Thanks for the great article!

thor_winnipeg's picture

I can sympathize with your frustrations as an English teacher, Christina. Plagiarism and managing the marking workload are two significant issues for English teachers. I am not certain that applying late penalties is the best solution for student learning. Teachers need to design assignments that make it difficult for students merely copy. I like Ontario's policy, where deducting marks is a last resort, used only when myriad proactive strategies have been exhausted. Check out Growing Success, page 43 here:

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Christina,

I appreciate your thoughts about the different points. Making such changes not just in our practice but also in our view for what's best for quality learning are important for students and education.

Regarding lateness. I understand your concerns. As an English teacher the thought of accepting late work without a purposeful plan of action feels daunting and time wasted. What I propose is that students who turn in work late need coaching on who to turn around their habits. Now aside from those who turn in work late because of an unforeseen circumstance, many times the reasons could be pointed to time management. Taking off points does not "teach" or "coach" time management. If points are going to be deducted then add a time management column that is separate from the content grade.

I prefer quality work be turned in. In the world outside of school, clients, sometimes us, expect an excellent job or product. A rushed meal will be sent back, for improvements, a painting job done without the proper time and care, will get repainted. Even taxes not done sufficiently enough will be required to be redone correctly. I've known of a few teachers who turned in lesson plans or attendence reports past due, and received no penalty in their pay or negative mark in their records. Usually, there is an expectation of a warning, while the work must still be turned in--completed. In all cases, there is not always a penalty, except for the lost of respect.

Coach students. Require them meet with you before or after school, or during lunch when they must sacrifice free time, to sit with you when you assess the late work. Follow up with a conversation about their management of time. The combination can be motivational and potentially lead to students turning in work less frequently.

But whatever the solution is, a student who is chronic in turning in late work needs coaching. Taking points off for lateness or not even accepting the work creates Assessment Fog for what content the student actually knows.

Thanks for posting your comments, as they spark opportunity for all of us to puzzle out new solutions.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Thor,

Thanks for your well reasoned points. Far more succinct than my response. I look forward to reading the document that you've shared :) What are ways that you coach students to become punctual with quality work?


cashmere27's picture

Speaking from the point of someone who is on the front lines, I understand your points about neatness and spelling. However, I have found that making it worth a minute number of points....say 2 out of 20, students are apt to pay attention to their neatness and take more pride in their work. This doesn't apply, obviously, to students who have IEPs stating they have disabilities pertaining to spelling or fine motor skills.

John McCarthy's picture
John McCarthy
Education Consultant, Advocate for Student Voice in Learning

Hi Cashmere27,

Thank you for sharing such a specific concern, one that is shared by many.

It does sound logical to assign points for such items as neatness. The problem is when neatness is not listed as an academic outcome or standard. Those 2 points (per your example) could be the difference between a learner's work being listed as proficient or approaching. Neatness score would "mask" an area of need for skill development.

If assigning points for neatness is essential, than one suggestion would be to create a neatness category. Let that "grade" be separate from the grade for the academic skills. OR, let neatness be a gatekeeper before grading. Students who do not adequately reach a neatness score must redo the assignment until it meets that level before being graded. Believe me, most students will learn that lesson the first time they have to redo because not enough care was taken the first time. That's coaching.

OR, if assessment is truly being used to support student growth, then use no points. Give descriptive feedback for the student to use in their next revision. A primary purpose of assessment is to track growth and provide learners with supports for study, reflection and revisions to demonstrate higher levels of learning.

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