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How to grade assessment/assignments with a no zero policy

How to grade assessment/assignments with a no zero policy

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Last year was my first to have a No Zero policy in grading assessments and assignments. My lowest grade a student could earn was 60%. I plan to continue it next year. I feel that these grades better reflect what they actually learned. However, I applied the grades 2 different ways and feel I need to be more consistent and don't know which to use. 1st way - use a regular percentage and no one gets below 60%. So, for a 5 question quiz, the grades would be 100%, 80%, 60%, 60%, 60%. This is the one I like the least. 2nd way - replace the natural zero with 60% and then create equal increments for the other percentages. So, for the same 5 question quiz, the grades would be 100%, 90%, 80%, 70%, 60%. I like this better, as it seems that it really gets more to what the letter grades mean (A=excellent, B=above avg, C=avg, D=below avg, U=Failing), but it can also seem subjective. I have found myself trying to convince myself that the way I've incremented it is fair and I'm nervous that it will lead to grade inflation. I would love to hear your thoughts on this. What do you do?

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Melody L. Polson's picture
Melody L. Polson
secondary English teacher... 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th so far... ELL certifi

My principal insisted that the 50% zero is more fair, in that it allows a person to catch up, should they decide they wish to pass.
The difficulty is the whole school learns the process is in effect, and soon know that they can do one assignment in six, and pass. One assignment in five, and they have a C... one in four, and they can carry a B. How is that building skills???????????
I'm not a teacher to fail a child.
I'm a teacher to guide children to mastery of skills.
If a child, for whatever reason, is 'on strike', our whole school needs to deal with him/her... not pass him to the next year without the skills to succeed.
It really is counter-intuitive.
In my district, they (PTB's) loosened the pass rates from middle school to high school to get problem children off the campus and someone else's problem. Without the skills to succeed, they began failing high school, and couldn't catch up, so dropped out.
We don't do favors making it easier to pass.
A portion of grading is subjective. But the other portion is doing the work-
This is the tale of two children who want to learn to sail. One does what the sailor asked, one talks about what learning to sail will be like, and how the world will fall at his feet...
The sailor ends the tale with, "How can I tell that?" asked the sailor man.
We have to figure out how to make clear that a student must show us how they know what they know, or we cannot determine it is time to move on.
I love doing multi-genre assessments for precisely that purpose. I teach writing, and writing is one of the least fun things to do for youngsters that are having trouble holding a pencil, or forming letters in the first place. Will life be better when they can keyboard? Maybe... think about the keyboarding skills students have... or don't. How the heck am I to measure mastery if a kid won't do the work?

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I think the key phrase there is "lets the person catch up."

Averages as a way of determining a final grade are flawed as they assume that you want a complete finalized record of the learning process only, rather than the real information you want: Has this student learned this material?

In average based systems, there is a problem when students do nothing (because of a lack of confidence, or attendance, or whatever) for a while and then are stuck in a hole they can't climb out of, which acts as a powerful disincentive to start trying. If the students are focused on the grades as the result, then they don't focus on the learning outcomes. The other side of the coin is that if you try some internal gaming of the system (50% instead of 0%) then students find, as you've discovered, other ways to game the system.

I've heard of teachers implementing mastery based systems instead, wherein they start the system where the students are at, and then assess the students as they progress. Each student is not expected to "keep up", they are expected to master the material. At the end of the year, instead of sharing one grade, you share what material the student has mastered.

One interesting consequence is that you discover quite quickly that students progress in short bursts sometimes that surprise you, and that almost no one learns at a nice even rate.

Melody L. Polson's picture
Melody L. Polson
secondary English teacher... 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th so far... ELL certifi

I think the concept of mastery as a way to 'grade' makes folks uncomfortable because they only imagine the 'record keeping nightmare.'

If we move from the rolling snapshot to "follow the child"; we could create a database for each child, and import that database when the child is with you, until they are not... which would indicate they had mastered that set of tasks.

I teach writing, so the 'set' is varied and complex, and there is more than one way to any writing task. However, the 'framework' remains, and can be measured. The 'mastery', then, would create a group of kids that could actually write on demand... eventually.
I say eventually, because it took me three times, in a college class, to actually be able to 'write on demand' by sentence clause type, sentence type, and internalize the grammatical elements to do it successfully.
But what is wrong with working at something until it is, indeed, mastered? That one would move on to the next phase when you were capable, rather than sit in a classroom, when really you are ready to leap on the next rung of the ladder? How is that a bad thing?
Does it upset the 'curriculum design' we've become comfortable teaching?
I watched a TED lecture, and the speaker said, "...our kids are not manufactured 'lots' or widgets, turned out in age groups. Kids are not that uniform."
We need to shake up our assumptions.

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I think if you are going to grade for mastery, you have to let some electronic system handle at least part of the assessment for you, if that is possible in your discipline. You also need to spend less time delivering the content, and more time interacting with the kids in one on one or small group sessions, which is another kind of letting go that people often find uncomfortable.

Sandra Lawrence's picture

I also follow the 2nd way and find that some grades even at 60 are over inflated. Egs. Student A does hardly anything and earns 60 while student B puts out good effort but work is incomplete and also earns a 60.

David Wees's picture
David Wees
Formative Assessment Specialist for New Visions for Public Schools

I think the issue you bring up with a 60% meaning very different things for different students is a problem regardless of whether you have a no-zero policy or not?

Some students work really hard to get a 60% and other students achieve a 60% with no effort, but both of them get the 60% on their final grade? Does that make sense?

I think it is vital that we split the work habits that students have from their final grade, so parents can get a more accurate picture of their childs' learning.

Corah's picture

All my rubrics also have a work effort component to them (I teach 4th grade, so all projects are worked on somewhat at school). Something to the effect of 'I have taken my time and done my best work'.

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

The bottom line on a "no zero policy" is that how can you give work and allow students not to do it? If they can get away with not doing it, why assign it? I think regardless of whether they end up with a 0 or 60 they need to do the work. I tell my students they will work 3x harder for a 0 than doing it the first time. Making it difficult to not do work will force 90% of the students to step in line. 5% will occasionally fall down but still do work-and the other 5%? That takes a miracle.

Lisa Goihl's picture

Research actually supports the no zero theory due to the increments: there is a 10% span for each grade except the F, which has a 60% span. (0-59.5%=F in most cases.) This means that, if you average grades--which most teachers do, a student earning a 90%, 80%, 70%, 60% and a zero on 5 equally-weighted assessments would average to a D-. (However, all grades but 2 in the list were HIGHER than a D-.) So, if you take away the WEIGHT of the zero through changing the lowest F to a 50% (50% is not passing, but it weights the same as any other grade), the average becomes more realistic. Some schools grade on a 4 point scale which makes the zero for an F weigh the same proportionally as the rest of the grades do. Here is a great article that explains it better than I do:

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