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Who Knew: Why Timeliness Should Not Be Considered In Grading


I have a question for you. Imagine the grade at the top of a student’s paper says 80%. What should that tell you about the student’s knowledge of the content? Before I dive into that deeply, allow me to digress.


At one point in my career, my boss, the superintendent, unexpectedly left and I was appointed as the interim superintendent. It was a very small school district where the superintendent took the lead in completing the federal Consolidated Application. 

For those unfamiliar with the Consolidated Application, it’s the required application each school district must complete to receive federal money. This money includes all of the federal Title grants. If your population of students with low socio-economic status is high (meaning you have students who live in poverty), this money is vital money for educating the students. In New York, the application is due to the NY State Education Department (NYSED) no later than August 31st. 

In the school district where I worked, our poverty rate was about 97%. Accordingly, not only was the money important for ensuring we met our students’ needs but the money was also included in our budget as a critical source of revenue.

Here’s the catch…When the superintendent left, it was late April. It wasn’t until early May that the CFO informed me the Consolidated Application was not submitted for the year. Neither the CFO nor I had ever completed the Consolidated Application before. Furthermore, we were unsure if NYSED would even accept it considering it was nine months late. To our amazement, it was accepted and approved within days of our exceptionally late submission. 

Here is another example of a school district submitting information late to the government. In this case, it was the Annual Professional Performance Review (APPR) agreement renegotiation that needed to occur to align the APPR agreement with the new state regulations. Unbeknownst to the district, when the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) was renegotiated, the state expected the district to renegotiate the APPR agreement too. This was discovered at least six months after finalizing the CBA. Even so, when the state was notified that the APPR agreement still needed renegotiation to align with the new regulations, the state’s response was more or less, “No worries. It happens. We’re here to support you.”

Before I go any further, I want to point out that these tardy submissions were unintentional and uncharacteristic. I certainly wouldn’t want to give the impression the people in either organization had a blatant disregard for timelines or deadlines. Nevertheless, the submissions of documents to the government were more than just a little late…and, there were no negative consequences whatsoever. Not one.

Have you ever submitted something late? What happened to you? 


What I am about to say is going to ruffle more than a few people’s feathers and my goal is not to make folks mad–it’s to invite folks to think differently, or at least consider a different perspective.

Okay. Here it goes. 

So, let’s return to the question at the start of this letter: Imagine the grade at the top of a student’s paper says 80%. What should that tell you about the student’s knowledge of the content? 

In fact, let’s say we have three students whose papers say 80% at the top. Since they all have the same grade, we might assume they all know more or less the same amount of content knowledge.

Now, let’s imagine I told you Student A turned in the work early, Student B turned in the work on time, and Student C turned in the work late. 

I already told you each student’s grade is 80%. Given the timeliness of submission, do you still believe they all know more or less the same amount of content knowledge or do you think the timeliness of their submission impacted their score?

Now, what if I told you Student A earned bonus points for turning in the work early and Student C was penalized for turning in the work late?

Given that you know the score on the top of each student’s work was 80% and Student A was rewarded for timeliness whereas Student C was penalized for a lack of timeliness, you can deduce their knowledge of the content could not be the same. Student C must have more content knowledge than Student A since Student C’s grade was lowered to 80% and Student A’s grade was increased to 80%.

In fact, the image below shows each student’s knowledge of the content and timeliness in submitting the assignment. You can clearly see Student C accurately knew 100% of the content compared with Student A, who knew only 70%, and Student B, who knew 80%.

When I present this to folks, one of the common responses is one of dismay or confusion about the possibility of a bonus for being early. This practice is certainly less common. However, most people do not bat an eye at the idea of a penalty for being late. What is the reason we believe penalties for late work are acceptable practices but we think the idea of giving a bonus for being early is odd?

Please know that I am not saying individual people who engage in practices like this are bad people. They are not. Since these practices are so ubiquitous, we cannot point fingers and say this person and that person are wrong; we can say there is a problem with the system

So, once more, let's revisit the question that started this discussion: what does an 80% on a student's paper truly tell us? As we saw, the same grade can mask different levels of understanding. Punishing late submissions might seem fair on the surface, but it can disadvantage students with strong knowledge who simply struggle with meeting deadlines. As well, rewarding early submissions can help students with weaker knowledge earn a higher grade without actually improving their knowledge of the content. In fact, students may even rush through their work for early submission just to achieve a higher grade.

In short, the current system often prioritizes following arbitrary rules over true learning. This raises a critical question: shouldn't our grading practices focus on rewarding mastery and encouraging deeper understanding, rather than simply penalizing tardiness or rewarding early submissions?

In the next Lyon's Letter, I'll explore alternative approaches that go beyond grades and penalties and delve into strategies that promote a more meaningful learning environment for all students. Stay tuned!


P.S. My Catch of the Week is the movie Triangle of Sadness.  Riddled with twists and characters that are unlike any I can remember, what sets Triangle of Sadness apart is its ability to skillfully navigate complex themes, particularly the notions of power and gender. The film cleverly uses humor to subvert expectations and challenge societal norms, forcing the audience to question their own feelings and preconceptions. The result is an intellectually stimulating experience that sparks conversations long after the credits roll.

P.P.S. Please remember to...

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I've struggled with this idea because you have the students who are habitually late and you want to help them understand they need to get their work done on time. Then you have the students who usually always turn in their stuff on time but couldn't this one time. You still have to penalize them in order to be fair since you've penalized the others. However, it is also very frustrating to receive an assignment days late for no apparent reason. I also find that if students don't see you as "strict" on deadlines, they won't do the work in class; they'll get their friends' "help" after class and turn it in whenever. It really is a catch 22. I…

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Thanks for your comment! There is no easy answer when it comes to the topic of timeliness and grades and your comment illustrates many of the challenges. Next week's letter gives some approaches to address this issue in a non-traditional manner. That said, if I may, I'd love to push your thinking here a little.

  1. You wrote, "You still have to penalize [the students who usually always turn in their stuff on time] in order to be fair since you've penalized the others." Actually, this is not necessarily's equal. Equal is treating everyone the same and fair is being considerate of various reasons and differentiating your response based on the situation. Equal could be penalizing all OR it…

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