George Lucas Educational Foundation

Is Our Grading System Fair?

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Student with head in hands

“A zero has an undeserved and devastating influence, so much so that no matter what the student does, the grade distorts the final grade as a true indicator of mastery. Mathematically and ethically this is unacceptable.”

Rick Wormeli quoted in O’Connor, K., A Repair Kit for Grading, ETS/ATI, Portland, 2007, 92

The topic this week opens a huge can of worms in education. For better or worse, in the end it seems that everything comes down to the final grade, which generally generates a source of anxiety for kids and a source of contention among stakeholders when disagreement or confusion presents itself in regards to how the grade was determined, and perhaps most importantly, what the grade really means and if it truly indicates learning. In short, one little letter has the power to make a huge impact on a kid’s life. Of course, this is nothing new. It has always been the case, and little has changed. Grades have been and remain the center point in education, which are often accepted as the final word on learning, the final indicator of success or failure. But what if the final word is flawed? What if grades are not really true indicators of learning, success, or failure? I wonder. And though my wonders may lure me to wander into a huge realm full of questions never asked and answers oft ignored, I will stick to one worm in the can for now: zeroes. We will explore the general topic of grading practices in greater depth next month.  

The great majority of kids who fail do so because of the dreaded zero, which is most generally the result of a missing assignment, not necessarily an indicator of low-or-no proficiency with course content. So, invariably, zeroes kill grades, often creating holes that kids cannot crawl out of, resulting in many giving up and failing a course. So, too, even kids who do not fail courses suffer the unfair penalty of zeroes, which often drastically decrease their grades. So what? If they didn’t want the penalty, they should have completed the assignment. One should not get something for nothing. Kids need to learn. Yes, they do, but some lessons make more sense than others. And zeroes don’t really make sense when we examine traditional grading scales.

Most grading scales roughly reflect a 10-point-increment scale, moving down the scale from A (100 - 90) to B (89 - 80) and so on. Again, this is nothing new. We all were subject to such a scale, and kids still are today.  And, as we continue down the scale, it remains uniform until we get to F, and then it abruptly dives from 59 to 0. F's should stop at 50. There are no G through K grades, only F’s. In terms of numbers, scores given in this range may reflect a degree of completion (a kid did 3 of 10 problems, so he gets 30%), but in terms of learning, scores given in this range whether it’s 59, 34, or 17 reflect one thing: failure. When kids or parents see scores below 60, they generally understand that that indicates a performance well-below standard; students have not been successful with the content. When we start assigning numbers within this range, what are we really seeking to communicate?  Let’s take a 52%. Are we really meaning to suggest that this is a lesser fail than a 33%, which should then suggest a greater fail? This then continues down the scale, approaching the zero, a sign of complete and utter failure. Kids in this range for various reasons are well-below the grade-level standards that we have established in our classrooms. That’s the message, generally intended and generally received. This is clear.

What I wonder is if we also have to attach a punishment in the form of a sub-50-point score? Somehow, it just doesn’t seem fair. Why can’t we let an F be an F? We let A’s be A’s and B’s be B’s. Why not F’s? Why do we have to let the bottom drop out? A bottom that drops the kids off a cliff they can rarely re-climb, especially in classrooms where they cannot turn in late work or redo assignments. Is this really fair for kids? Is this ethical in an arena where the stakes are so high? I’m not sure.

Four years ago, I quit zeroes. They are no longer allowed in my classroom. I still have F’s which communicate, in number and learning, performances well-below standard. Kids still receive failing scores in my classroom, but I don’t tack on punishment, additional insult to injury in the form of sub-50% scores; 50% is now the lowest score possible in my class. The kids know from the mark that they have failed to meet standard; I don’t need to crush them more with added penalties. It makes sense to me, it makes sense to my kids, and it makes sense to parents. It’s also beginning to make sense to some of my colleagues, who, too, have adopted a no-zero policy. But not all. Some of my colleagues have accused me of malpractice, suggesting I am ruining kids’ lives by not teaching them a lesson. And I guess of that I am guilty. But I sleep at night knowing that I have given kids a fair shake, and while I may not be teaching them the harsh lessons of life, I am giving them opportunity by creating a realm of possibility in room 219.

Your turn. Is the practice of giving zeroes fair? Please, join the conversation. Your words matter.

Originally published on Let's Change Education: "Weekly Wonder: I wonder if our grading system is fair."

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Ardea Herodias's picture

I give zeros, but I also accept late work. It does not make sense to me to give someone 50% credit for work that they did not do. So, as the work comes in, the zeros are replaced by a grade. A good grade is a moving target - there is always more work during the term. So, instead of sending a student further into a hole, I leave columns for current work blank once they have established themselves as someone who doesn't turn in work on time. Blanks do not affect their grade. Therefore, when they turn in last week's work, they'll get a grade for the assignment, their grade will improve for the three seconds it takes for the computer to save it and before I enter zeros for the next week's worth of assignments that they haven't done. In this way, a student may hover around 50-60% when in actuality, if I were to enter everything they haven't done, their grade may be more like 30-40%. Although, when they have a row of zeros, their grades come up faster than when they are hovering around 50-60%, especially if their work is low quality anyway.

To me it doesn't make sense to give an automatic 50% to assignments that a student didn't do and that you haven't seen (if indeed they actually did do it, but it's just lost in the vortex of their backpack). But again, I accept all late work. Which means that the end of the term for me kind of s-cks because that's when some kids manage to pull their act together.

I do find that after 30 assignments, their scores tend to average out - such that subsequent assignments don't really change their class averages at all.

I went to a college that gave narrative evaluations, which I like better. I am the only biology teacher in my rural school, and I have been solo for 13 years, so I have no idea if my standards are unreasonable or too easy. This last trimester I was really hard on my students and some of them pulled their act together at the end and one of them said, "All trimester I hated those articles," (mostly from Scientific American) "you assigned for homework, and I didn't want to read them, but then I decided that they'd be easier to do than the final, which seemed really hard, so I read them, and they were really interesting, and they helped me do the final, and the final was easy to do once I did all the homework."

Good reader, I cried.

Sunchild Pratt's picture

I'd be more concerned with Why they are not turning in work. I wouldn't give them 50% for a non submission, as this greatly insults the student who did the work and struggled to get 50% for the effort. A zero does seem harsh and it does drag their grade down, but the student who habitually doesn't hand in work, I think is no longer engaged and doesn't care about the effect the zero on overall work. Instead of just giving the zeros, Look at alternative ways to re-engage the student in learning and of course make sure there aren't any learning support needs going under the radar. Some kids need the task modified and part of being a good teacher is knowing which kids fall into that category and which kids simply need more of a push to get things done. Admittedly we as teachers (even though I'm a mere preservice teacher) aren't their to proverbially wipe bums, we do need to remember they are kids and there is a tremendous amount of pressure on them and that's before the even enter the classroom. Zero is harsh but 50% teaches them that they can sail through life and not put effort in and still expect the same reward as those who actually do try. I hope this makes sense.

Sheri, middle school special education teacher's picture

I dispensed with zeroes at least 6 years ago. I explained my grading scale & reasoning to students & teachers, but also set up my grade book in such a way that it doesn't show percents, only letter grades. I use special codes such as "mi" for missing and "np" for no pass on assessments. Students who receive less than 50% on an assessment are expected to work with me to learn the material and retake the assessment. My goal is for each student to learn the material, even if it takes additional time. My school district is adopting a new grade book program next year and is moving in the direction of no zeroes. It'll be interesting to see how it all works.

Ellen Hokanson's picture

WHO ARE the kids most likely to have zeros averaged in? In my experience, they may be:

1. Kids who are absent because their families are homeless or frequently transient (kids in severe poverty).
2. Kids who are absent because they have chronic health problems, such as asthma (much more common among children in poverty).
3. Kids with untreated ADD or ADHD, who have difficulty tracking homework assignments and complying with deadlines.
4. Kids who are English Language Learners, who have trouble understanding or completing homework assignments and whose parents are less able to help them.
5. Kids whose home lives interfere with homework completion, because they are noisy, overcrowded, and lacking in supplies such as pencils and paper, not to mention computers with internet access (poverty again!). If you've ever done home visits, you may know about this first hand.
6. Kids who give up on tasks because they feel alienated from or even disrespected by the teacher or the school. Often the underlying problem involves cultural misunderstandings and/or racism.
7. Kids with chronic behavior problems which interfere directly with their learning and also indirectly by making it less likely that they see the teacher as a supportive person they can turn to for help. We now know that PTSD (highly correlated with poverty!) underlies many chronic behavior problems.
8. Kids with untreated mental health problems such as depression or anxiety which interfere with work completion. (Families with resources get these problems treated, but those in poverty often do not.)
9. Kids who spend most of their off-school hours helping their families, either working or doing childcare for siblings. (Poverty again.)

So when we ignore the basic mathematical fact that zero weighs heavily in averaging numbers on a 60-to-100 scale, we are discouraging students who had disadvantages before the course began. It's not just about those who end up failing classes entirely. Consider:

If I have ten equally weighted assignments and I got 99% on the 8 I completed but failed to complete 2 and got zeros, I have a C in the class (79%). I'm a brilliant student and I want to go to college, but my homework environment stinks. Too bad for me.

If I have ten equally weighted assignments and I got 80% on those I completed but zeros on the two I didn't do, I barely pass (64%). My parents and I get the message that I'm almost failing, even though I learned the material well enough to earn a B.

If grades don't reflect students' level of mastery of the material as much as their completion of tasks, we have to ask if we are really grading on compliance. We can call it work ethic or whatever we want, but if we're honest we must admit that we are systematically penalizing many children, often for things that are out of their control.

Teachers in the discussion thread have questions about how to do this in a fair way. There are no doubt many good approaches, depending on the situation. The assessment class I took 20 years ago taught that averaging in zeros was unethical, so the assessment experts have weighed in on this. In many cases, simply grading on what the student did and ignoring the omissions will give a reasonable result. After all, they have had fewer chances than other students to prove their mastery, and often the zeros are for homework assignments where a most students got a high grade for simply handing them in.

Please, let's consider how much this little zero adds to our education system's continuing failure to meet the needs of students living in poverty!

Michael Hein's picture

So my Dad used a 13 point system A+ = 13, A=12 down to D-=1 and F=0.
A and an F would average to a C. I have a friend teaching in a no zeros school and she is not allowed to give a grade less than 50 even if the student was caught cheating. 50% for cheating?

Sue Ditmore Horita's picture

I have always accepted late work - no penalty. I want to know what the kids know and what they can do. My district has now gone to standards based report cards, so the grades on the report cards have to do with whether or not students demonstrate mastery of skills and concepts by the end of the unit or quarter. It has nothing to do with completed assignments or low grades on assignments that are done while learning a new skill. This system has its pluses and minuses. My biggest concern is whether or not we are teaching our students to be responsible and preparing them for the work force. No boss is going to tolerate work not being done or work being incomplete or poorly done. By not letting kids experience failure as kids, we are setting them up to be failures as adults.

Rossalyn Lloyd's picture

I can't help but wonder if a great injustice is being done to the students by not giving them anything less than a 50. If a student isn't allowed to have anything less than a 50, I don't think that we would have an accurate grade for them, and therefore won't have a proper response on how to help them. What I mean by this is that now we don't know if a student has improved or not. By being able to give students an accurate grade of zero to 100, we can monitor improvement. We can see if they had a zero, which improved to a 30, which improved to a 50. Now, if we start with 50, there isn't that much room for improvement and once they get to 70 they are passing and they won't get as much attention. Some students really do need a lot of extra help, and we need to be able to see that. I understand that doing away with zeros so that the students won't feel more miserable is a nice thing to do, but giving them a fifty versus a zero, isn't going to change that. They are still failing and they know that they are failing. Only now they think that they are doing well enough. They are thinking "oh I got a 50, that's better than a zero," but that's because they don't have the ability to get a zero. Accountability is important and students need to learn that. Someone mentioned allowing students to turn in late assignments or earning extra credit to improve their grades, and I think that those are great ideas. It gives the students the opportunity to improve their grade, without taking away the reality that they could get a zero if they don't try. In the end, if they still get a zero, they will understand that it was because they didn't try. I wouldn't intentionally want to give a student a zero to "crush" them, as someone else put it, but so that they know how they are doing. And I would just give out zeros and that's it. It would be good for teachers to follow up with students, let them know what they did wrong, that they can still improve, and ask them what they need help with and how the teacher can facilitate that. Our responsibility as teachers is to always help our students, lying to them with inaccurate grades isn't helping. Not to mention the way it's affecting the students that are doing really good in class, they are getting A's but should they be, or is their grade just being raised by the new scale where the lowest grade can be a 50? These are all the things we need to think about when it comes to grades. Of course, not everything is told with just grades, we have to come up with other ways of assessing the student's comprehension of the material. Some students just don't test well, so we need to look at all facets of their work.

John Schiel's picture

A grade is a categorical variable not a quantitative variable. Percents and averages work well to measure success in sports but not for learning. A grade should be a teacher's professional judgment of a student's level of achievement based on the quality of all of that student's relevant work.

KarynV's picture

"So, invariably, zeroes kill grades, often creating holes that kids cannot crawl out of, resulting in many giving up and failing a course. "

No, not invariably, not if you weight your assignments reasonably. A student in my class can get quite a few zeros on homework before it affects their grade by one letter. On the other hand, if they cut a test, or don't make it up, that zero will drop their grade about 7 points. The grades reflect the relative importance of the assignment. And as others have said, just turning it in receives at least some credit.

The "mathematical" argument against the zero makes zero mathematical sense.

TravisBowen's picture

At my school if you get one failing grade at the begging of the year we could fail the entire year

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