Extra Credit: Seldom Up to Standards

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — March 22, 2000 8 min read

Slackers in Steve Armstrong’s class get little compassion from the veteran social studies teacher when report cards come due. Despite that reputation, his students at Manchester High School outside Hartford, Conn., still plead for a chance to earn extra credit once their apathy toward schoolwork is overtaken by panic over grades.

Mr. Armstrong has become all but immune to the begging and cajoling that confront teachers everywhere from students looking for a quick academic bounce. He has held 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,” Mr. Armstrong said.

While teachers have been doling out extra credit for years, critics say that in this era of higher standards and harsher consequences for failing students and schools, bonus points are gaining too much influence over grades. In many cases, those critics say, extra credit is undeserved and unfair, and rarely helps students master complex subject matter. What’s more, they worry that grades inflated by extra credit are undermining efforts to hold students more accountable for their performance.

Helping or Hurting?

Teachers like Mr. Armstrong provide few such lifelines, but many others routinely offer the additional assignments. They cite a desire to motivate students to learn outside the classroom, as well as pressure from them, their parents, and school administrators to offer more opportunities to win higher grades.

But while many teachers claim in one breath to stand by strict policies, they admit in the next to caving in to student pleas.

“I am vehemently opposed to [extra credit],” said a teacher from upstate New York. “Yet, I’ve allowed students to earn it.”

Around the country, students have managed to garner up to 20 extra points toward a class or test grade or, in some cases, even a final grade. For many students, turning in an extra book report or worksheet, collecting specimens for science lab, volunteering for school or community activities, or even bringing extra supplies to class, can mean the difference between a D and a C, or, more often, a B and an A.

“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,” said H. Parker Blount, the chairman of the education-policy-studies department at Georgia State University, who has studied teachers’ grading practices in nearby Atlanta-area schools. “It is not about learning something additional.”

Indeed, many bonus assignments appear to have little to do with helping students master an academic subject. In Frankfort, Ky., for example, students have earned extra points toward their geometry grades for donating canned goods to a community food drive. Students at a suburban Los Angeles high school can beef up a grade simply by bringing boxes of tissues and other unfunded necessities to class. And in Cobb County, Ga., 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 that came in McDonald’s children’s meals.

“While I understand why [teachers] want to help students, ... in the long run they are not helping them” by lax extra-credit practices, said Lorrie Shepard, a professor of education 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.”

Meaning Behind Grades

The use and misuse of extra credit has been responsible, in part, for drastic inconsistencies in the meaning behind grades, some observers say.

A group of English teachers at Campbell County High School in Gillette, Wyo., recently discovered that their policies on awarding extra credit were all over the map. Students taking the same course from different teachers were likely to get the same grade for varying levels of effort and performance simply because one teacher offered more chances to raise class scores.

The teachers have decided to create a departmentwide policy. So far, they have agreed that extra credit should be given only if a student has completed all required assignments, that the additional work should complement the English curriculum, and that the bonuses earned cannot be used to substantially raise a final grade.

Other department heads in the 1,500-student school have expressed interest in using the English guidelines to establish a schoolwide policy, according to Judy Iliff, an English teacher there.

The teachers hope a more consistent use of extra credit will help make comparisons between students more equitable.

Distinguishing the differences among students with similar grades is a growing dilemma among college- admissions officers trying to determine the academic merit of applicants. The increasingly varied grading standards have also provided fodder for critics of extrinsic, rather than intrinsic, rewards to motivate students to learn.

“Whether kids ought to get extra credit for this project versus that one misses the main point, which is [how the concept of ] kids working for grades undermines the process of learning,” said Alfie Kohn. The author of The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving Beyond Traditional Classrooms and Tougher Standards is a strong opponent of schools’ emphasis on grades. “The problem is not that too many kids get extra credit. The problem is that too many kids have been led to believe that getting high grades is the point of going to school.”

Hefty Rewards

High grades, however, can earn students hefty rewards. Georgia, Kentucky, and other states give out college scholarships to students based on their grade point averages.

While the scholarship programs have won praise for helping students pay for higher education, they have also come under fire as encouraging grade inflation. Some reports from those states suggest a greater tendency among teachers to provide numerous possibilities for extra points so that more students can win the scholarships.

Such practices miss the point of the scholarship programs, which are designed to motivate students to study harder and earn better grades through actual achievement, a number of observers point out.

“We want teachers to ask, ‘Is this the kind of work that is going to push students toward the standards we’re seeking?’ and whether it’s something kids think of as worthy work,” said Carolyn Witt Jones, the executive director of the Partnership for Kentucky Schools, a foundation established by business leaders to help school improvement efforts in that state. “I don’t think anything we know about learning indicates [that extra-credit projects] are the best use of student time.”

Many students, in fact, view most extra assignments as a waste of time. That is Ms. Jones’ conclusion after numerous interviews with students in Kentucky. And students elsewhere have categorized extra credit as “stupid” and “bogus.” Top students also tend to resent it when teachers provide their underachieving classmates with an easy way to earn points, thereby undermining the hard work of others.

Shawn Zellman, a junior at Chaska High School outside Minneapolis, said he has watched friends earn better grades after spending 20 minutes on extra-credit work that has little connection to the classroom.

“I just feel that the idea of extra credit is pointless,” he said 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. It is not at all necessary [to do extra credit] to keep your grades up as long as you pay attention and do your homework.”

Giving Due Credit

But Mr. Zellman, who represents his class in the school’s student government, is an above-average student. For struggling students, some researchers say, supplementary work should not be dismissed out of hand.

Some students can benefit from thoughtful and appropriate assignments that deepen understanding of the concepts introduced in class, according to Melissa Roderick, an associate professor of social service administration at the University of Chicago. She has been studying that city’s four-year effort to end the widespread practice of promoting failing students to the next grade.

The push in Chicago to establish more concrete measures of what students know—using students’ scores on the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills as the primary determinant in student-promotion decisions—has failed to give students proper credit for genuine effort and achievement, Ms. Roderick argued.

“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,” Ms. Roderick said. “Kids in Chicago are working really, really hard, and now, we need to move to the credit for that. Their future is determined with just a single test score.”

While there may be exceptions, in the long run, critics say, teachers’ charity may hurt students more than it helps. In Georgia, where some 60 percent of high school graduates have been eligible for the HOPE scholarships after earning A’s and B’s in high school, 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.

Mr. Armstrong, the Connecticut social studies teacher, who is a board member of the Washington-based National Council for the Social Studies, said he has watched student grades sink once the benefits of extra credit were eliminated. Students who earn additional points in his district’s voluntary summer-reading program, he said, tend to earn A’s in the first quarter of the school year, toward which the points are applied. By the next quarter, though, their grades come back to earth, he said.

“Extra credit gives an unclear picture of what [kind of work a student is doing],” Mr. Armstrong said. “The kids who got credit for summer reading are great kids, but they didn’t deserve an A.”

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A version of this article appeared in the March 22, 2000 edition of Education Week as Extra Credit: Seldom Up to Standards


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