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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Should teachers assign marks of zero for students?

Should teachers assign marks of zero for students?

Related Tags: Assessment
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16 Replies 3826 Views
There has been a lot of discussion recently about the practice of assigning a zero for incomplete, late, or missing work after an Edmonton Teacher was suspended for failing to follow his school's assessment policy (which stated that students should not receive zero for an assignment). I am personally of the opinion that we need to rethink many of the ways in which we do assessment. For some background reading on where I stand on the whole zeroes issue, I recommend reading some of the posts on John Scammell's blog. http://thescamdog.wordpress.com/ There are a lot of alternatives to our grading system. Can you imagine a different system than the one we use? Imagine that time, money, and logistics are not an issue (these can often be resolved later). What would you do differently?

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Michael Gagnon's picture
Michael Gagnon
English Teacher - High School

I have been struggling of late with the power of zero. Mario Patino notes the importance of transparency with students and the necessity of advocating life skills beyond the classroom. Within the first week of classes, I discuss grading and what a zero means. It means you didn't do the assignment at all. It means you didn't complete an assignment (this applies to homework only) - which prevents me from knowing where an issue may be occurring.

Homework is the only assignment on which a zero reflects a lack of completion. Why? Students often fail to follow directions. Students often feel confused or unsure so they give up rather than make an attempt to show how they understand it. Students seem to have little coping skills - if something is hard, they just don't bother - that does not equate to success. Of all assignments, homework is the one in which you can get it wrong and still get credit for it. Its purpose is to show me how they are thinking so I can understand where they are going astray. This is explained fully to them and consistently reinforced. For many students, this works and they do give it their best shot. For others, well, those are the students who don't do homework, or projects, or essays, or other major assessments.

I cajole, I discuss, I intervene, I support these struggling students because their lack of work often reflects other issues at play. In the end, as Patino says, they must learn that doing nothing has consequences, not just in the classroom but in life in general. I discuss the impact on life after school with my students and we talk about the behaviors of success. Don't like a subject, you still push yourself to pass it - why? Because everyone has parts of a job they don't like, they still do it. Successful people do it well, because they know every effort counts.

In the end, homework and classwork account for a small portion of the grade, while assessments are the major measuring stick. You can pass my class without doing any homework (chances are, however, that the other grades won't be great - a lack of practice leads to a lack of success), but I often find that zeros for homework reflect low grades on assessments - and the students see that as well.

Finally (I'm sorry I've been long-winded), I work in a district which does not allow quarterly grades (for the first 3 quarters of the year) to be below a 40 - thus offering students a chance to "bounce back." I've had students with an average of a 6, but had to change their grade to a 40. I've also worked in schools where the student could turn in work at any point in the year and you had to grade it (I had a student once turn in three major projects right before our April vacation and I had to take the projects with me to grade them - they were all due prior to our December break). How is this fair or reasonable? Where in life will they be given this kind of option again? While our focus may be academics, pre-college teachers also have to instill professional behaviors of success - you cannot separate them. It is the last place students can learn these behaviors without a cost to their future or pocketbook.

Mario Patiño's picture
Mario Patiño
NBCT, science educator

[quote] Where in life will they be given this kind of option again? While our focus may be academics, pre-college teachers also have to instill professional behaviors of success [/quote]

You raise some interesting topics Michael. Again, all grading is based on personal philosophy. Some give grades as a form of feedback, others give numbers, percentages, smiley faces, check marks, stickers, or time stamps. I choose to work with the student, provide written or oral feedback so that they can better understand what we are learning. Of course this takes time but the reward is much greater than the effort it takes to employ this strategy.

If you believe that grades should represent what was learned and understood, can you honestly give a grade within the learning cycle when students are still trying to understand what you are teaching them? I know there is some in the profession that feel that "my students won't do the work unless I grade it" this is a major misconception. If you teach students to value the work they are given they will do it. Most don't do my homework assignments when they don't understand the directions or I haven't given them enough support in the classroom to complete the work at home. Reflective practice ensures how you respond to the needs of your students, if you are not doing this, there is a high chance they will not do the work you asked them to do.

I agree with you Michael we [educators] need to teach and model life skills. Not all situations in life are based on deadlines, not all life situations require that we turn in "stuff" on time. We are dealing with adolescent youth who do not think like adults [How can they when critical sections of the brain are still growing]. If you [educator] are not willing to spend some time to model these skills, expect such behavior to be demonstrated. It [behavior] is just as natural as tripping over your feet when you are still learning how to walk. Should we grade babies when they are struggling to learn basic cognitive and motor skills?

Jon Moore's picture
Jon Moore
11th and 12th grade English teacher from Shepherd, Montana

So many interesting ideas-I have a few comments.

The concept of only going to a "D" seems faulty. I do not believe we should accept or allow D's or F's. In a standards world if C is proficient, what is a D? Nearing proficiency? So that is good enough to move on? Our district has grade checks that are followed by reward days for those in academic good standing. Last year we redefined good standing as C or better. We simply could not accept telling students a D is OK. In the real world a D at your job means you are the first to go when the cuts come.

As for 0's. I see what many are saying-they are a death blow to grades, yet some kids simply make bad choices. Many solutions come from reevaluating homework practices. I tell my students I will not give them homework every night; however, what I give them is critical for both of us and I want it done. If they do not, they receive a completion contract (See O'Connor's How to Grade for Learning). Parents have to sign the contract, the assignment is done, full credit is given. 60% of my students who receive one never receive a second (parent pressure???). Failing that completion, they receive detention to do the assignment to do it with me and receive 50%. If they don't show up they are written up for insubordination and they receive Friday school and a 0-there is really nothing else I can do at that point. They earn their 0's just as they earn their 90's.

We also have several interventions in place that help. If a student has little home support, therefore the contracts don't work, they go to a support room during intervention time. I also have open session during intervention if the reason for the assignment not being done was academic (sadly it rarely is).

Kay Butler's picture
Kay Butler
HS Mathematics and MS/HS Pre-Engineering teacher, from South Louisiana

I agree with David Wees and highly recommend checking out John Scammell's blog - he has some great ideas! http://thescamdog.wordpress.com/

Unfortunately, our on-line grading program automatically assigns a grade of "zero" when "Inc" is selected - if left ungraded, it's too easy to overlook that requirement. I will recommend that our program be changed to report "Incomplete" whenever an assessment has not been completed since that's much more reflective of the current grade status.

For me, the issue of reporting regular homework grades posed a problem - some students rarely, if ever, do math "Home Learning Assignments." To avoid recording zero grades, I give a single "Class Work / Home Work" grade for each lesson - that way, students can still earn up to half of their points just for coming to class, participating in class activities, and completing the "U-Dos" during class (increases in-class engagement for some, but there are still those who choose to do little to nothing). At least that way, a "zero average" in "Work Ethic" will not sabotage their overall average. However, I'm left with the problem of motivating those students who choose to do nothing most of the time . . . then the problem becomes one of external motivation rather than one of grades!

So, now I'm on my way to go read about student engagement and student motivation . . . again - I'm always in search of ways to get my students involved in their own education / learning.

Kay Butler's picture
Kay Butler
HS Mathematics and MS/HS Pre-Engineering teacher, from South Louisiana

I agree with David Wees and highly recommend checking out John Scammell's blog - he has some great ideas! http://thescamdog.wordpress.com/

Unfortunately, our on-line grading program automatically assigns a grade of "zero" when "Inc" is selected - if left ungraded, it's too easy to overlook that requirement, so I am left recording "INC" and "Zero" grades. I will recommend that our program be changed to report "Incomplete" whenever an assessment has not been completed since that's much more reflective of the current grade status. I'll use John's recommendation of sending a note home stating that the assignment / assessment needs to be completed so that the student can receive credit and avoid having to repeat the course. We do this for Progress Reports, but they come out half-way through the quarter - kinda late for some students!

For me, the issue of reporting regular homework grades posed a problem - some students rarely, if ever, do math "Home Learning Assignments." To avoid recording zero grades, I give a single "Class Work / Home Work" grade for each lesson - that way, students can still earn up to half of their points just for coming to class, participating in class activities, and completing the "U-Dos" during class (increases in-class engagement for some, but there are still those who choose to do little to nothing). At least that way, a "zero average" in "Work Ethic" will not sabotage their overall average. However, I'm left with the problem of motivating those students who choose to do nothing . . . that problem becomes one of external motivation rather than one of grades!

So, now . . . I'm going to go read about student engagement and student motivation . . . again - I'm always in search of ways to get my students involved in taking responsibility for their own education / learning - not an easy task! Administrative support and school-wide expectations / consequences in place help.

Kristle's picture

I don't know about others, but I do not assign grades. Students earn grades based upon their decisions whether or not to be accountable for the materials. I merely facilitate their ability to master materials. If students are taught to be accountable for their actions, no zeros will be needed. It is about accountability. A zero denotes no effort whatsoever or failure to fulfill academic obligations such as deadlines. If criteria are explicitly stated, atudents are aware of their obligations. Grades are earned according to effort. Therefore if a zero is earned, a zero is given.

Trent DeJong's picture
Trent DeJong
Grade 12 English, Literature and Bible teacher in Abbotsford, BC

We need to come to an agreement about what the grade is to communicate. If it is to communicate what the student knows and can do, then we can't use zeros. The teacher is expected to assess what the student can do or what she knows. Without data, this is impossible. The teacher must get it. No data, no mark. If a zero is averaged into the mark, it no longer communicates what it is supposed to communicate--it no longer measures performance. This is much more thoroughly explained at http://trentdejong.com/?s=zero

Mario Patiño's picture
Mario Patiño
NBCT, science educator

Trent you raise a good point-"what does a grade communicate?" I can tell you in my class, it represents learning and understanding since 95% of their grade is determined by performance on summative assessments. These summative assessments are diverse and only given when formative assessment data reflect readiness.
As for your position on "no zeros"-I agree with your philosophy yet in practice we are constrained to polices such as "grades need to be submitted by X date." If it was up to me I would give no grade because of lack of data. My school is not set up to extend the school year for students who are challenged in the life skill department. I use an even distribution scale, so students are able to recover when they make poor decisions Giving a zero is only harmful when there is no way to recover from them.
Zero's represent choices students make. As practitioners we need to do as much as we can to teach students critical life skills so that they can not make such decisions. At the end of the quarter, I need to turn in a grade. This grade will always reflect what was learned and understood.

Trent DeJong's picture
Trent DeJong
Grade 12 English, Literature and Bible teacher in Abbotsford, BC

I still contend that you can't give the student a zero for work not turned in because it will then be an inacurate reflection of what a student knows or can do.

So I do what ever I can to get the work in--I use a combination of parental pressure and coersion (I tell them they need to turn the work in by Tuesday, or whatever, and if it's not done they stay in at lunch to finish and I will mark whatever is completed by the end of lunch).

If this fails, theoretically, the student will not receive credit for the class. They can take summer school or do it next semester, or whatever. These consequences are much more severe than giving them a zero. This ought to silence the critics who thing that the no-zero policy is some sort of softening of consequences so as to protect the fragile self esteem of students.

I've never gone this far because I always get the work in by day X.

So then the zero doesn't represent the choice the student makes. The kid receiving no credit represents the choice the student makes, and the grades can represent what the student can and cannot do.

Read more at http://trentdejong.com/?p=398

Mario Patiño's picture
Mario Patiño
NBCT, science educator

Trent, your system seems to complex for me but if it works for you that is great!
My practices work for my students. If students fail to complete/submit work I record "missing" or "0." They have the option to replace this zero with taking a standardized assessment which addresses the same standard + must also submit a reflection paper which focuses on self-regulation. I suggest you read the book by Dan Pink called Drive and Robyn Jackson's Don't Work Harder Than Your Students. The use of the carrot+stick model is ineffective in getting students to change behavior. Teaching students to hold themselves accountable for the choices has been more effective in my practice than calling home.

The best lesson for students who "choose" not to do their work is letting them learn from the experience and providing them opportunities to recover from such choices. If they learn, then their grade will always represent this growth.

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