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Do Deadlines for Schoolwork Help or Hurt Students?

A look at the shift away from deadlines in schools

Published on: August 15, 2023

Teen working on homework in their room

Imagine your high schooler has been hard at work on a big project — maybe it’s a history essay or a science presentation. They’ve put in hours and completed the project to near perfection. But for some reason (anxiety or a moment of forgetfulness?), the assignment was turned in a day late. Due to a teacher’s late-work policy, your student gets not the A they would have earned, but 50 percent credit instead. An F.

At first glance, the policy seems unfair. Why does your kid’s superior work get a lower grade than someone else’s lackluster work that was turned in on time? This policy might even be counterproductive. Your teen may slam doors while shouting, “Why did I even bother, since I’ll fail anyway?” The possibility of this statement becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy for some teens isn’t that remote.

Teachers worry about these issues, too, and have long looked for grading systems that allow for that magic blend of flexibility and accountability.

Standards-based grading

In the early 2000s, a standards-based grading movement mounted a strong rebuke against late penalties, arguing that grades must have a clear meaning. Standards-based grading focuses on separating academic indicators from extraneous factors, such as timeliness. Using this model, students are graded purely on demonstrating what they’ve learned, not on when their work is turned in.

Research on standards-based grading has shown promise, but the model includes more than accepting late work. Moving to standards-based grading requires a district-wide effort, including an overhauled gradebook, one in which high school students are graded on dozens of skills, similar to an elementary school report card. This can be tricky for those families and college admissions boards that are used to letter grades. Teachers in traditional schools have embraced elements of standards-based grading, but the benefits of enacting a penalty for late work without incorporating the rest of the standards-based practices are a bit murkier.

Equitable grading

In 2018, Joe Feldman’s book “Grading for Equity” took the education system by storm. Since then, his Equitable Grading Project has reached thousands of teachers through workshops and school collaborations. Feldman connects tenets of standards-based grading to equity. He argues that when teachers incorporate soft skills such as attendance, participation and an ability to follow through on deadlines into their grading practices, the result is inequity, because these behaviors are susceptible to implicit teacher bias.

“It is well documented that schools’ disciplinary actions often disproportionately punish African-American, Latino, low-income and special education students because of these biases, and the same biases similarly infect aspects of teachers’ grading. For example, when teachers grade students on ‘effort’ or any interpreted behaviors, those judgments are often clouded by teachers’ backgrounds and biases toward a student’s race, class or gender.” — Joe Feldman, “School Grading Policies Are Failing Children: A Call to Action for Equitable Grading

Feldman recommends not using grades to force compliance. Instead, he posits, students should be intrinsically motivated to learn. In addition to eschewing deadlines, he recommends other changes, such as not grading homework and allowing students to retake tests and redo assignments indefinitely. He reports that under this model, the number of students receiving D’s and F’s “often decreases, and decreases more dramatically for vulnerable and historically underserved student populations.”

Critics point out that Feldman’s experience as a classroom teacher totaled three years, and research for his book was done in a mere 15 schools. Since the 2018 release of his book, there hasn’t been enough independent research to suggest the model could work on a large scale. Many schools and teachers have incorporated his equitable grading practices into classrooms, but inconsistent implementation and the pandemic have thwarted efforts to collect compelling data. While Feldman’s book is full of anecdotes from students and teachers extolling the virtues of equity-based grading, stories of frustrations with the system are also plentiful.

Meanwhile, back in the classroom …

Theory espoused by educational consultants who haven’t taught actual students since the Clinton administration often falls apart in the classroom. While harsh penalties for late work and strict deadlines can be harmful for some students, the elimination of deadlines wreaks havoc in a classroom. Expecting students to intrinsically want to write essays is naive, and allowing students to turn in assignments on their own timeline results in a glut of slipshod work turned in at the end of the semester. Sometime around early June, students start lamenting the fact that they were allowed to procrastinate in the first place, and many students who had grand plans of doing everything “later” end up failing.

Most students need deadlines and a late-work penalty to enforce them. Bestselling author Gretchen Rubin’s “The Four Tendencies” reveals that most people are more likely to meet external expectations, such as deadlines, but struggle to meet self-imposed expectations. Since most people have this tendency, taking away deadlines is detrimental to student success.

Equity versus equality

But what about the other students? Those who rebel against deadlines, who legitimately need more time or consistently forget to turn in completed assignments because of a disability? For those students, teachers can make exceptions. They can accept late work on a case-by-case basis.

The lack of deadlines outlined in “Grading for Equity” would be better defined as grading for equality, not equity. Equality is when the same support is given to all students, regardless of need. The no-deadlines approach is an equality tactic: All students get the same policy. Equity means giving each student the support they individually need. Even though a lack of deadlines is harmful to many students, teachers can’t round up those specific students and impose a special late-work penalty that only applies to them.

But teachers can do the opposite. Teachers can make a general policy establishing deadlines and late-work penalties, and then make exceptions for students in need. That would be truly grading for equity.

Late policy considerations for students with IEPs and 504 plans

If your child is on an individualized education plan (IEP) for special education students, consider requesting an accommodation that allows for penalty-free late work. (It’s possible your student already has one.) If your child doesn’t qualify for an IEP, but struggles with physical or mental health challenges, a 504 plan may be put in place to allow for deadline extensions.

If your child does not have an IEP or a 504 plan, keep those in mind if your teen complains they were penalized for late work, but a friend wasn’t. Calling the teacher to demand an explanation can be awkward since teachers are legally required to keep IEP and 504 plan information confidential.

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