Jami Dehn prepped homework packets to send home with her class of third-graders every Friday afternoon last year, carefully charting how much they should read, write in cursive and practice spelling.
But while she checked the returned assignments and wrote comments in the margins, the Hawthorn South Elementary School teacher didn't score the work.
Dehn joins a growing number of teachers who either have stopped grading homework or have capped how much it counts toward a student's overall grade. Instead, they reserve their grade books for in-class work like tests and research projects.
Educators say many of the daily assignments measure a student's work ethic more than knowledge. Besides, they say, some papers come back with an obvious assist from mom and dad.
"Don't get me wrong. I think homework is very important," Dehn said. "But the thing is, you don't know how much was done by a parent or someone else."
The shift upends years of tradition where teachers assigned homework, parents hounded kids to do it and students got graded based on what they turned in. That can make the change a tough sell to parents and educators who see homework as an important responsibility lesson and worry that kids may blow off assignments if they are not graded.
"People like to hold on to these things, these ideas of: 'That's how we do school. We have homework and we give grades,' said Lisa Cerauli, director of teaching and learning at Hawthorn School District 73. "It's hard to change that expectation of what school should look like."
Among those who have concerns is Lisa Kornfeind of Bolingbrook. She said homework counts for 10 percent of her high school daughter's grade, and she worries that might not be enough. She believes grades reinforce the message that students should take assignments seriously.
"If it counted for more, I'm sure more kids would get it done. And if you don't do homework, how will you remember what you learned?" Kornfeind said.
There's a great range of opinion, however. At a time when some adults worry that kids face more homework at a younger age, the move away from grading homework is viewed in some quarters with relief.
Grading expert Ken O'Connor contends that grades actually deter some students from doing homework. He urges teachers, parents and students to view homework as practice.
"Nobody gets better from getting a 1 out of 10," said O'Connor, a former high school teacher in Canada who advises several local school districts on grading. "But if you get some descriptive feedback saying 'You did this well, and this is where you need to improve,' that's far more likely to get them to do their homework."
The change comes as many schools revamp their entire approach to grades. The end-of-term average that for years lumped together tests, homework and class participation did not show whether students mastered a specific set of skills, teachers and curriculum experts said.
Now, many teachers calculate a student's grade without regard for homework. They reserve that for a separate section of the report card that asks if "students complete homework on time."
The grading question is most pointed in middle school, where students often get their first taste of traditional " ABC" grades and tougher homework assignments from multiple teachers.
Middle school prepares students for the rigors of high school, but the closer you get to high school, many educators say, the more people pay attention to grading and homework.
"Middle schools know that in high school, it's amped up a bit. They want to prepare their students. So, I think their philosophy is, 'You need to take some responsibility,' " said DePaul University education professor Roxanne Owens.
This fall, Glenview School District 34 will limit quizzes, mid-term reports and homework to 20 percent of a middle school student's grade. Meanwhile, a panel of parents and teachers will determine whether homework should play any role in their grade-point averages.
"I'm not convinced a grade is a motivating factor for all kids. I think, as adults, a lot of times we think it is," said Assistant Superintendent Phil Collins.
In Glen Ellyn, Hadley Junior High School officials worried that students might skip assignments when they overhauled the grading system three years ago to count homework only as a work skill.
But Principal Chris Dransoff said they found that students kept doing the work. He hopes they learn a larger lesson, too.
"The thing we're trying to hit — and it's a more lofty goal, maybe — is showing kids the relationship between doing work and getting a good grade," Dransoff said. "This is really a time when kids start to put two and two together."
Schools found other carrots and sticks to encourage students to tackle the nightly assignments.
At Wilmette's Highcrest Middle School which stopped grading homework for academic credit when the district revamped its grading system two years ago, students who miss assignments may get a call home or an invitation to the afterschool homework club, said Principal Luke Pavone.
If homework still goes missing, there are escalating consequences. Teachers have the student and parent sign a contract with a new due date, for instance. Students who still lapse must report to the early morning group to do their homework or risk detention. Pavone started the group last year for "chronically late" students.
"Kids stepped it up because they didn't want to be in the early morning club when they could be talking to their friends," Pavone said. "Sometimes, that's all it takes."
Many students, of course, require no special prodding.
Last year, Seth Gilbert brought home more than an hour of work every day with most of it graded. This year, he expects even more as he starts seventh grade at Gwendolyn Brooks Middle School in Oak Park.
Gilbert and his classmates at the Secular Jewish Community and School, which he attends on Sundays, conducted a yearlong survey to understand how homework fits into kids' lives. In May, they presented their conclusions to Oak Park School District 97. Among the findings: a quarter of the 186 students surveyed said homework kept them from doing other activities.
Gilbert was among those who said so. Still, he said, if his teachers assigned work he would do it — graded or not.
"I'd feel like it was a responsibility," said Gilbert, 12.
Besides, he added, turning to his mother, Elisa Lapine: "You'd make me do it."
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