School grade levels and homework might work against learning

According to a recent analysis, an estimated 14 percent of ninth-graders in Chicago Public Schools (CPS) will earn a four-year college degree within 10 years of starting high school.

The analysis, released in early December of 2014 by the University of Chicago Consortium on Chicago School Research, also stated that only 40 percent of CPS high school graduates enroll in four-year colleges.

The analysis further concluded that:

  • Chicago places close to the national rate (estimated at 18 percent) for ninth-graders earning a degree, and places ahead of other large urban districts.
  • Based on ACT test scores, many CPS students remain unprepared for college.
  • At four of the 10 four-year colleges most frequently attended by CPS graduates, the six-year graduation rates are below 50 percent—presenting a major barrier to college completion.

The conclusion that CPS students graduate unprepared is not a new one; teachers, parents, employers, and other observers have said the same thing for decades.

Inside Chicago Government has followed the issue of student preparedness for some time. An aspect that we seldom see popular media address: How might the typical structures of school grade-levels and student assessment work against learning? Teachers and education policy wonks we've interviewed have some interesting ideas about this. Here's a summary.

1. Homework might not only be a waste of time, but a bad way to assess learning.

When teachers grade homework, some experts say, they're measuring effort, the ability to complete tasks, and the number of right answers—but not necessarily measuring student competence in the subject, or skill.

Experts point to two phenomena they've observed:

■ Homework doesn’t stick. Even students who get good grades all through college can't recall much of the material on which they had to do homework—the homework that helped them get the good grades. This is because homework often asks students to simply memorize facts, or rephrase what the teacher or text has told them—not internalize content in a way that's useful to them in their lives, or even in a job. Students are rewarded for their knowledge of a subject's content, rather than their mastery of subject-related skills.

■ Improving homework performance doesn't affect grades. Education researchers say that "homework help" initiatives—wherein teachers or aides help students with their homework—often don't result in better grades or test scores. This suggests, they say, that either homework doesn't actually helps kids do better in school, or that grades don't work well as a measure of student performance.

2. Grade levels group students to the disadvantage of many.

Emotional, social, and intellectual development varies widely among children of the same age. Classrooms therefore might work better, experts say, if they grouped students based on where the students place in a development spectrum—rather than by age, as most grade levels typically do.

Furthermore, once students are grouped in a grade level, they're expected to meet "accepted" standards for that grade level—rather than perform at a level that's based on where they are in their own development. Forcing students to "pass" a grade level, experts say, not only ignores their individual level of development; it can set up unreasonable expectations for how they should perform at the next grade level.

3. Knowledge of subject content shouldn't be the only basis for graduation.

Many agree that high-school graduates should exhibit core competencies. For example, graduates should be able to articulate their thoughts orally and in writing. And they should know how to add, subtract, divide, calculate averages, and figure percentages.

Beyond that, some experts say, a person graduating from high school would be best served in later life if they know how to (a) regulate their own emotions, (b) work well in groups, and (c) have empathy for people around them. Furthermore, they should understand (and take comfort in) the fact that individuals are not naturally good at some things; rather, they develop skills through practice and hard work.

The latter point underscores the importance of exposing students to a variety of disciplines such as music, art, and social sciences—without having to memorize or be tested on content. Exposing students to these arts and sciences can help them later—either in school or after graduation—when they're ready to decide in which areas they might want to focus and perhaps work.