Pressure Points

May 01, 2000 5 min read
Tough teachers resist students’ pleas for extra credit.

When the end-of-semester panic over grades sets in, veteran social studies teacher Steve Armstrong shows slackers in his class little compassion. He holds to a strict policy of offering extra-credit assignments only to students with legitimate excuses for missing classwork. “I generally am not sympathetic to people who slide for the entire semester and, at the last minute, attempt to do a prodigious amount of work that will put them over the top,” he says. Despite Armstrong’s reputation, pleading for a chance to earn extra points is practically a springtime ritual for his students at Manchester High School outside Hartford, Connecticut.

Though teachers have been doling out extra credit for years, critics claim that, in many cases, it is undeserved and unfair and rarely helps students master complex material. What’s more, they worry that grades inflated by extra credit make it hard for policymakers, administrators, and parents to know whether kids are actually learning what they need to. Armstrong says he has watched students’ grades sink once the benefits of extra credit are eliminated. For example, students who earn additional points in his district’s voluntary summer-reading program tend to get A’s in the school year’s first quarter, toward which the points are applied. By the next quarter, their grades come back to earth. The extra credit distorts the picture of a student’s work, Armstrong says. “The kids who got credit for summer reading are great kids, but they didn’t deserve an A.”

While many teachers claim in one breath to stand by strict anti-extra-credit policies, they admit in the next to caving in to student pleas. “I am vehemently opposed” to extra credit, says a teacher from upstate New York. “Yet, I’ve allowed students to earn it.” Others routinely offer additional assignments without shame. They say they want to motivate students to learn outside the classroom, but they also note pressure from kids, parents, and school administrators to offer more opportunities for higher grades. “It really is a matter of the student needing so many points to get some grade that they desire, so they go to the teacher and ask for extra credit,” says H. Parker Blount, chairman of the education policy studies department at Georgia State University. “It is not about learning something additional.”

Many bonus assignments appear to have little to do with academics.

Indeed, many bonus assignments appear to have little to do with academics. In Frankfort, Kentucky, students have earned extra points in geometry for donating canned goods to a community food drive. Students at a suburban Los Angeles high school can beef up grades simply by bringing to class a box of tissues—a necessity not generally covered by regular funding. And in Cobb County, Georgia, last summer, a teacher with a Beanie Baby obsession doled out additional points to students who gave her the miniature versions of the stuffed animals included in McDonald’s children’s meals. Despite teachers’ good intentions, they’re not helping students in the long run, says Lorrie Shepard, an education professor at the University of Colorado at Boulder. “Students should have additional opportunities to show they’ve mastered the material, but that is not [accomplished by] bringing in extra clippings from the newspaper or donating school supplies.”

Extra credit is blamed, in part, for dramatic inconsistencies in grades. English teachers at Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyoming, recently discovered that their extra-credit policies were all over the map. With one teacher offering more or less extra credit than the next, students taking a course taught by different instructors could get the same grade for varying levels of effort and knowledge. The teachers are now working on a departmentwide policy. So far, they have agreed that extra credit should be given only if a student has completed all required assignments, that additional work should complement the English curriculum, and that bonuses cannot be used to substantially raise a final grade. Other department heads at the 1,500-student school have expressed interest in using the English guidelines to establish a schoolwide policy.

Many students view extra-credit assignments as a waste of time. And those at the top of the class tend to resent teachers who provide do-nothing classmates with an easy way to earn quick points. Shawn Zellman, a junior at Chaska High School outside Minneapolis, says he has watched friends earn better grades after spending 20 minutes on extra credit that’s loosely tied to classroom work. “I just feel that the idea of extra credit is pointless,” he says via e-mail. “For the most part, the students who are lazy are the ones who look for the easy way out in doing the extra credit.”

But Zellman, who represents his class in Chaska High’s student government, posts above-average grades. Students who are struggling can benefit from thoughtful and appropriate assignments, argues Melissa Roderick, an associate professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago. She is studying that city’s four-year effort to end the widespread practice of promoting failing students to the next grade. Chicago relies in large part on scores from the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills to make student-promotion decisions—a policy that fails to give students proper credit for effort and achievement, Roderick argues. “We are trying to convince the school system that [giving] kids points for things like attendance and good performance in and after school would send a much more important message to kids that work and extra credit mean a lot,” she says.

The issue of fairness is particularly acute in states that award college scholarships to students with high grade-point averages.

The issue of fairness is particularly acute in states that award college scholarships to students with high grade-point averages. In Georgia, which pioneered such state efforts with its HOPE scholarships, there’s concern that teachers eager to see their students qualify for the ready cash have pumped up grades. Some 60 percent of high school graduates have been eligible for the HOPE scholarships after earning A’s and B’s in high school, but an estimated two-thirds of the recipients in the 1997-98 school year lost the awards after failing to maintain the required B average as college freshmen.

Finally, opponents of bonus marks argue that the age-old controversy over extra credit needs to be reframed. The debate over whether kids ought to get extra credit for this project versus that one misses the point, says Alfie Kohn, author of The Schools Our Children Deserve and an opponent of competition in schools. “The problem is not that too many kids get extra credit,” he says. “The problem is that too many kids have been led to believe that getting high grades is the point of going to school.”

—Kathleen Kennedy Manzo