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Equity Resources, Productivity Strategies, Truth for Teachers Collective   |   Oct 19, 2022

Ending the late work debate: try issuing students a “credit score”

By Whittney Tomczyk

Gr 3-12 Teacher

Ending the late work debate: try issuing students a “credit score”

By Whittney Tomczyk

With late work, it’s tough to find the balance between offering empathy and encouraging accountability.

Here’s what I discovered when I experimented with a different approach.

The problem I had with late work

There seems to be an ongoing debate that teachers engage in — what to do about late work. Dealing with late assignments can range from moderately annoying to absolutely overwhelming, and there are many schools of thought about the right way to handle it.

There is the zero-tolerance crowd that insists this type of policy prepares kids for the real world. There are those who impose a grade penalty for each day an assignment is late to encourage accountability.

Then, there are those who count all late work for full credit because the goal is to assess mastery rather than speed. While I fell into the final category, I struggled for many years early in my career trying to find something that worked for my students and for me.

How I found a better late work process

In my quest to find this holy grail of late-work policies, I looked towards the “real world” argument, despite my opposing viewpoint. I determined that, in the “real world,” turning something in late, like a water bill payment, would not immediately result in one’s water being shut off. In my mind, this was the equivalent of a student earning a zero for a late assignment.

The truth is that companies do not want to shut off their clients’ water, they want the payment owed, just as I wanted my students’ work to be able to assess their level of mastery. So what happens in this scenario when the bill goes unpaid after a short grace period? There may be a fee placed on the account, and the failure to pay may be reported to the credit bureau. Thus, the idea of the classroom credit score was born.

The late work solution that I use in my classroom

I decided to input a grade into my grade book for a student’s “credit score.” I taught a mini-lesson on what a credit score is, what it does, and why it matters in the “real world.” I told my students that in the real world, they all start with a credit score of nothing because they have to prove themselves to be trustworthy, but for me, they had already completed this process by showing up for class, participating, and because I just liked them in general.

I started every student off with perfect credit or a 100% grade. From there, if they turned in their assignments on time, their “credit score” stayed at 100%. If an assignment was turned in late, I would grade it for full credit, because again, it was always my goal to assess student mastery, and I wanted their assignment grade to reflect that. However, their credit score would be reduced by a predetermined amount (see variations for options on this element).

At the end of the grading period, students had the opportunity to view their credit scores and “petition the credit bureau” to have something removed from their scores. If students showed improvement in their ability to turn in work on time over the course of the quarter, they could earn points back.

Why this late work system works for me and my students

This system accomplished multiple things:

  • Students had an incentive to complete their work on time to keep their “gifted” 100% score in the grade book.
  • Assignment grades reflected student mastery to both students and parents rather than a score that reflected when the assignment was turned in.
  • 504 and IEP accommodations were easily adapted into this system.  Students could be exempted from the credit score altogether, and/or their “grace periods” could be longer to allow for extended deadlines.
  • If I knew that a student was having a difficult time for any reason — family issues, mental health struggles, etc, I immediately suspended the credit score system for them and worked with them to help them get back on track.
  • Even after turning in late work and having a reduction in their credit score, students had an incentive to improve, knowing that they could earn those points back at the end of the grading period.
  • Late assignments could not “tank” a student’s overall grade. If a student was turning in “A” and “B” work consistently, even if every assignment was late, there were a finite number of points they could lose. Therefore, that student might be earning a low B due to the consistent late work, but they would not end up failing the course. This system provides accountability without being overly punitive.

Variations on this late work system you can try

Over the course of many years, I have utilized this system in several different ways, so my hope is that the following variations might help you to see how you might implement this system within your own classroom structure, regardless of grade level or content area.

  • Primary students: I would not include this system as a grade because developmentally, students are still acclimating to school. I would include the idea of following directions and learning classroom norms and procedures as an element of being a reliable classmate. To reinforce this concept, I would compliment students often on their progress in this area.
  • Intermediate students: I referred to this system as a “reliability score,” rather than a “credit score.”  The overall message was the same, but understanding what it means to be reliable and the benefits of displaying that character trait were a little more concrete and developmentally appropriate for this age group. The grace period and score reduction can also be adjusted
  • Secondary students: When teaching middle school and high school students, I transitioned into the credit score system.
  • Advanced students: Depending on my students’ needs, I would adjust the predetermined score reduction for late work. In a high-achieving honors class, the penalty may be heftier because of the expectations of an advanced course placement.
  • Struggling students: For classes where many students struggled with executive functioning skills and confidence, I would make the reductions very small and give more opportunities to earn points back if students used their planners, used their binders correctly, etc, to build good habits and to help students realize their own agency.
  • Differentiation: For the chance to “petition the credit bureau,” I have used many methods.  For stronger writers, I have asked them to write a formal business letter with argumentative strategies. For struggling writers, I have used fill-in-the-blank forms, Google Forms, an audio/video options where they could explain how they’ve improved, or just a quick one-on-one conference with any student who wished to make their case. As the head of the credit bureau, I gave points back as I saw fit based on effort and improvement.

Outcomes of this late work system

In the decade or so that I implemented and refined this credit score system, I witnessed several things. Students who were used to failing because they struggled to turn things in on time learned that I cared about their learning. I would continue to follow up with them about assignments because I wanted to see their progress.

For some, it took time to understand that they could pass my class even if they had a rough start to the quarter or semester, whereas, in the past, they would have given up because the hole they had dug was too deep to climb out of.  Because the emphasis was placed on completing the work, students who may have opted for the zero before were now completing important practice and assignments, meaning their overall scores went up because they better understood the content.

While I wish the credit score policy meant that I never received any late or missing assignments, it does not possess that kind of magic. It did, however, help me find a more balanced way to hold students accountable while also affording them the compassion they needed while trying to figure things out.

Whittney Tomczyk

Gr 3-12 Teacher

Whittney has certifications in both elementary and secondary education with endorsements in English Language Arts and Gifted Ed with experience in grades three through twelve.
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