Learning contracts and grades

Any set of differentiated activities must include work that is challenging for the most advanced students, and this kind of work immediately raises questions of fairness in grading.  Why should a student take on additional challenges if she is not going to be rewarded with higher grades? How can there be a fair grading system if some students are doing more sophisticated work than others?  The contract structure challenges the motivation many students have for doing schoolwork.

If learning goals are designed with the intention of every student being able to master them, (the definition of standards), how do we encourage students capable of more depth and sophistication to take on work that is challenging enough for them?  The next two paragraphs describe two ways to think about this problem.

Above and beyond

One way to deal with the issue of standards is to define the essential learning goals for any given contract such that every student, given a realistic amount of effort, can be successful in mastering them.  All too often, lip service is paid to this goal, when in reality some of a unit’s learning goals are simply beyond the reach of all students.  When that happens, they should no longer be called standards; they should be redefined as aspirational goals.

For students who achieve the learning goals quickly, contracts should make more sophisticated work available, with the proviso that their understanding of that material will not affect their grade.  Such work is "above and beyond" the standards that every student is expected to master. It exists so that every student is challenged appropriately and busywork is replaced with meaningful work. The idea that students would volunteer to do challenging work without a grade incentive may seem overly idealistic to teachers and students who haven’t experienced it.  It is, in fact, a quite normal and ordinary experience when the appropriate classroom culture is established. This idea of “above and beyond” work is explored more fully in the last chapter.

“Honors” credit

Many schools are working to detrack their course offerings.  Students who were previously in separate courses (called honors, regular, and general, for instance) are now together in one class.  While detracking can have a number of important benefits, it also creates new problems. For instance, tracking structures often included a grade point bonus as an incentive for successful students to take honors level courses. When courses are detracked, one way to deal with the loss of that bonus is to allow students to earn “honors credit” by doing additional work, above and beyond the required curriculum. Contracts lend themselves to this approach quite effectively.  Simply renaming “above and beyond” or “enrichment” items on the contract as “honors” work ensures a definition of who should receive honors credit.

While a student’s mastery of "above and beyond" learning goals may or may not be assessed by the teacher, “honors credit” goals should be tested in order to determine whether students have, in fact mastered the “honors” level work.