Do No-Zero Policies Help or Hurt Students?
Despite widespread opposition, the contentious grading policy — which is gaining popularity across the country – sets the lowest possible score for any assignment or test at 50 percent, even when students turn in no work at all.
Similar approaches have been embraced by school systems such as Fairfax County Public Schools and the Philadelphia School District in recent years, with the argument that they provide equal opportunity for all kids to flourish. These revisions to grading policy are occurring in tandem with national efforts to eliminate letter grades and reduce the importance placed on AP exams and SAT scores in favor of assessments that focus on students’ skills, competencies, and work samples, as well as efforts to abolish letter grades altogether.
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“I believe that grades are frequently used as a measure of ‘complete,’ rather as a measure of progress toward mastery of topic standards,” Jennie Frederiksen commented on her personal Facebook page. “Teaching is a demanding profession. Let’s have grades that are more reflective of real-world learning.”
Others, on the other hand, have a different perspective. According to many of the 300 members of the Edutopia audience who responded to our Facebook post “Is Our Grading System Fair?” a no-zero grading policy allows students to do minimal work and still pass, pushes students forward who haven’t mastered the content, and doesn’t teach students the real-life consequences of not meeting their responsibilities.
When it comes to real-world work conditions, “we are breeding a generation of entitled people who will enter college and the job market with big holes in their ability to function,” commented Tom Bannan on Facebook, reflecting on the lack of forgiveness for poor or unfinished work. Moreover, according to many of those who participated in the Facebook post, the real cause of failing grades isn’t severe grading systems or merciless teachers. “Zeroes don’t make any holes,” Lara Morales explained. “Children who choose not to complete their assignments leave voids.”
GIVING STUDENTS A SECOND CHANCE
For many supporters of a no-zero grading policy, the issue boils down to one of equity. Many educators believe that variables in students’ family lives create hurdles to their learning, that low grades encourage struggling students to give up, and that teachers who are unable to coerce their pupils into complying use grades to punish rather than to assess student understanding.
Teachers have highlighted that a wide range of home-life problems, such as learning difficulties, learning English as a second language, and working to support their families, can have an impact on kids’ ability to thrive academically. Students who fail to complete or turn in a major assignment or assessment due to a family circumstance may find it much more difficult to recover academically than students who receive a 50 on that assignment or assessment.
The author, Polly Pennington Wilson, explains that she works with students who don’t always know where they are going to sleep or whether they will have enough food when they return home. External variables can have an impact on student achievement in certain situations. Grades are a distant second to these considerations.”
However, the issue about equity was only one aspect of the critique levied at zeros in general. A considerable number of teachers just saw it as draconian arithmetic—a grading approach that, once activated, effectively destroyed all records of growth and learning during the balance of the grading period in which it was implemented.
According to Stephan Currence, an Edutopia audience member, “zeroes are unjust when you are utilizing a 100-point system.” “Which student has exhibited more mastery: student A with scores of 100, 100, 100, 0, or student B with scores of 75, 80, 90, 80, 90? Student B has a higher average in mathematics, but student A has plainly showed greater command of the subject.” It is possible to be undone by a single zero, in other words, even after months of exhibiting steady competence, and for many teachers, this feels unfair.
An academic paper that received a failing mark.
No-zero grading standards have caused a rift among educators.
Nonetheless, some educators believe that awarding kids with extremely low grades (in certain circumstances, zeros) signals to them that they need to study more. As Sarah Duncan, co-director of the University of Chicago’s Network for College Success, says, this is not how students perceive the situation. The Network for College Success works with high schools to increase students’ grades and graduation rates as they prepare to enter college.
According to Duncan, “instead of working harder, the vast majority of students who receive an F tend to withdraw, attempt fewer tasks, and attend school less because they’re taking an F for what it represents: failure.” Duncan was responding to the argument that zeros encourage students to take more responsibility. According to them, an F signifies, ‘You do not belong in this atmosphere.’
The evidence tends to support that point of view, as follows: Grading increases anxiety and decreases motivation in learning for students who struggle, according to a 2014 assessment of the literature that looked at the history of grading that spanned over 200 years.
The last group of teachers expressed concern that zero-tolerance grading systems are frequently employed as a classroom management strategy—and that they are the incorrect instrument for the task. “I believe that teachers are ill-equipped to deal with student behavior, and as a result, they are resorting to using grades as a means of coercing students to comply,” Currence stated. “This does not assist the child or parent in understanding where they are in terms of learning and what is required academically to achieve success.”
JUST PASSING THROUGH
Several of the educators who took part in the discussion had first-hand knowledge of no-zero policies, and they thought that in practice, they were ineffective.
“[Our 50 policy] had unexpected implications that caused training to be weakened. ” Following the policy’s implementation, “many students learned to game the system and would do nothing for two quarters [of the year], collect their 50s, and then do well for the next two quarters and on the final,” said Rachel Kent, who attended a school that had the program. “In essence, they were bright students who didn’t want to do the work (or didn’t want to come to school) and were aware that they could take half a year off and yet complete the course.”
Similar reasoning was used by the Leominster Public Schools in Massachusetts to reverse their policy of no zero grading. According to the Sentinel & Enterprise News, Sky View Middle School Principal Tim Blake expressed his concern that students were not learning to be responsible after years of doing things the same way.
Even though teachers who spoke out in favor of zeros acknowledged that the grade can diminish excitement for learning, they asserted that no-zero techniques had a similar effect—with potential long-term ramifications for kids—on their pupils’ motivation to study.
The use of a no-zero grading standard, according to these educators, allows students who haven’t mastered the content to slip through the cracks and proceed to increasingly difficult subjects, the next grade level, or even college completely unprepared, putting students in a hole from which they may never be able to climb back out.
“Why should we raise a child’s grade point average when they clearly don’t understand the subject and lack determination?” Alo Torres asked. When students aren’t ready for the following grade, they should be allowed to fail. It is not a kind of punishment. On the contrary, in fact. It is a source of assistance. By not passing them onward before they are ready, it is ensuring that they will be successful.”
According to Christina Arenas, a community college lecturer, high school students are often taken aback when they receive Ds and are not allowed to continue their education or coast through the semester. The question Arenas poses is, “What happens when your boss assigns you a deadline and you fail to meet it?” “At some point, our responsibility as educators must be to prepare them for life outside the classroom.”
MAYBE IT’S NOT A ZERO-SUM GAME
Given the vast variety of elements that must be taken into consideration, both rigorous pro-zero and no-zero tactics may be overly rigid. Given the fact that every child is unique, providing students with constructive criticism involves nuance.
Already, there are signs that teachers are beginning to find their way back to the center of the spectrum. In response to our audience’s feedback, some educators in schools with a zero-tolerance policy award a little higher mark to pupils who put out an effort. Teachers who are more flexible report that they award somewhat lower grades to students who don’t put forth any effort. While some teachers use students’ original grades on their papers, others use a 50 percent grade in their grade book so that students and their caregivers are aware of the grade that accurately reflects their true comprehension.
Jimmy Araujo, a high school biology teacher, utilizes place markers in his grade book to identify differences in student performance, which helps him remember the reasoning behind every 50.
“NM is an acronym that stands for non-mastery. AB is an abbreviation for absent. In the case of homework assignments, NHI stands for not handed in. “DNA for did not even make a try,” Araujo stated on his Facebook page. “These allow me to connect with students and parents more effectively, and to distinguish between areas where the student requires assistance.”
Overall, neither no-zero nor zero-tolerance policies, according to the experts, are panaceas for the problem. Grading is more about the feedback offered by the teacher and the expectations made by the teacher to place the grade in context.
“If you hand me an essay that is truly terrible, do I give you an F and tell you to do better next time, or do I say ‘I’m not going to mark this,'” I wonder. I expect you to produce work of far higher quality. I made some observations about it. Please come to my room at lunchtime, and we’ll work on it together. I’ll need you to turn it in the following week,” Duncan explained.