Compassionate and accountable assessment

A balanced approach to using zeros in today’s educational system

08/23/2010  |  SHANNON VARRIALE
teacher’s perspective

Today’s educators face a variety of issues that have the potential to divide people rather than unite them. One such issue is the “No Zero” policy. These policies are also called “ZAP” programs, which stands for “Zeros Aren’t Possible” or “Zeros Aren’t Productive.”

Teachers, parents, and students have their own understanding of a fair grading system, and the understandings within each of these groups vary considerably. Some teachers and administrators view zeros as discouraging and degrading, while others believe zeros help students learn life lessons about responsibility and work ethic. Some consider any grade, zeros included, as something students earn, while others view a grade as something assigned by the teacher.

When I first started my teaching career, it was my belief that students earn their grades. Students who did not turn in assignments did not receive anything above a zero. My thinking was rather simple: “if you turn nothing in, then you will receive nothing for a grade.” 

However, after 16 years of teaching experience, my opinion has changed. I no longer believe zeros are the only answer to work that is deliberately disregarded by students. Yet, I am not convinced that doing away with zeros altogether is the solution to overcoming poor self-esteem, oppositional defiance, or a poor work ethic. So, what is the answer?

One thing is sure: the proper use of zeros will not come in a nice neat package from the policy makers in the public school system or from the practices of teachers that have taken a traditional approach to assigning zeros. Rather, determining the proper use of zeros is, like many areas of education, messy work. It involves getting to know your students and understanding what the real problems are in the lives of those students whose work is woefully inadequate.

There are three main arguments for adopting “No Zero” policies. First, proponents of these policies cite the negative effects that zeros have on student morale/self-esteem. Sally Hansen, an elementary curriculum consultant for Omaha Public Schools, says “If a child is already struggling, and I give that child two or three zeros for not completing work, they’re going to give up ... it will take almost all year to bring that grade up ... we do not want anyone to feel like a failure and give up already in elementary school.” Second, some believe that zeros are used as a punishment for students who do not turn in their homework.

In Thomas Guskey’s article, “Are Zeros Your Ultimate Weapon?”, he states that “many teachers see zeros as their ultimate grading weapon, using them to punish students for not making adequate effort or failing to show appropriate responsibility.” Guskey reflects the opinion that grades are assigned by teachers rather than earned by students. The third argument for supporting no-zero policies is based on the mathematical breakdown of the grading scale. In the article, “The Devastating Effect of Zeros on Grades: What Can Be Done?,” James McMillan argues that the seven point grading scale should apply to all grades—including failing grades. Thus, in his argument, if a school uses a seven-point grading scale: 94-100 is an A, 87-93 is a B, 86-80 is a C, 79-73 is a D, the “range for [an] F would be 72-66.” He goes on to say that “work not completed, or done incorrectly, would get a score of 66.” This he says would be more fair because “the spread between zero and 65 becomes 7 points (F = 65- 58) [and] if homework or some project is not handed in, it would be recorded as a 58, not as a 0 to –reflect the same 7 point interval.” Indeed, when one looks at the math behind Mr. McMillan’s article, it does seem to be a very fair argument.

The three arguments mentioned above, although strong in many ways, all have the same undergirding concepts, namely, that grades are the most important aspect of education and once given are unalterable. I think both concepts can be reasonably questioned. In the case of Hanson’s argument stated above, it is true that a teacher should avoid discouraging a student through grading practices. However, no responsible teacher would intentionally demoralize a student with zeros that cannot be dropped or effectively dealt with during the remainder of the semester. A teacher should be mindful of any zeros in his/her gradebook by taking into account what percentage of the overall grade the zeros comprise and whether or not there is a way to overcome them. Likewise, Guskey’s argument that zeros are teachers’ “ultimate weapon” raises a good point.

Using zeros as a means of punishment is unacceptable in today’s educational system, but no responsible teacher would have grades in his/her gradebook that reflect a personal agenda of promoting or demoting a student. Guskey also argues that “a zero is seldom an accurate reflection of what a student has learned or is able to do” Indeed, zeros are usually an inaccurate reflection of a student’s ability, but likewise, assigning a student a grade of 66 percent for doing nothing is an inaccurate reflection of the student’s activity.

McMillan’s critique of the grading scale, seems to be the most balanced and should be taken into account when grading major tests or projects. If a major project amounts to twenty percent of the final grade it is extremely difficult to recover from a zero received for that project.

The strength of McMillian’s proposal to change the grading scale to a seven point spread between all letter grades, is that students will not have to make up as much ground on major tests or projects if they fail. However, there is a weakness to his proposal as well: If the grading scale was changed to reflect a seven point spread for all grades, there are sixty-six points for doing nothing and thirty-four points for maximum effort. Is that fair?

Despite the fact that there are solid arguments for implementing no-zero policies, some feel the policies will have a negative effect on a student’s sense of responsibility and morale. In Chesterfield County, VA, the topic was discussed as a result of a district policy instituted in 2007. Those who were against this policy were quick to argue that such a policy “could set students up to fail in life because it doesn’t ‘teach accountability’ and ‘gives an unrealistic idea of the real world.” In June 2009, the school board in Chillicothe, Ohio was presented with a no-zero policy, and some of the people who were against the idea raised an interesting question: should a student who does nothing be given the same grade as a student who tries hard but fails? The commonality in these arguments is the idea that education is about more than grades. Education is about “life” and “the real world.” Presumably, students have to be prepared for a world that rewards nothing with nothing. Vatterott argues that “we [teachers] want ... to nurture within students the identity of a successful learner.” But the question is: What is a successful learner? Is he or she a student who is given a grade in order to preserve their self-esteem or is it someone who learns that hard work does pay off in the end? Gregory Stanley and Lawrence Baines reflected on this topic when they said:“...students who are rewarded regardless of their performance eventually lose respect, both for their teachers and for the subject. If the teacher is not sufficiently concerned to require real work, why then should a student bother? Success without achievement often fosters an attitude of entitlement among students, and even the best and the brightest eventually come to recognize the game. Over time, continued participation in make-believe learning can result in disillusionment, apathy, and anger.”

Giving a student a 66 for doing nothing is an inaccurate view of what a student has done, and can have negative consequences that are just as problematic as a student who is demoralized by zeros. Furthermore, what better sense of self esteem is there than that which comes from hard work and perseverance?

So, what are educators to do about “No Zero” policies? Those educators who teach in schools where there are “No Zero” policies should not blatantly disregard the policy. However, I believe that when teachers record student grades, they should take into consideration that there are many ways to grade. Tests, homework, quizzes, projects, etc. should all be weighted differently. Major tests and projects can have a minimum grade of 50 while homework and quizzes have a minimum grade of zero with polices in place for dropping low grades at the end of the term. A good teaching practice would have teachers inform students of their grading policies at the beginning of the year. Grading, like learning, is a process. Thus, clear communication between teachers, students, and parents could instill in students a work ethic that would alleviate the sense that ZAP programs are necessary.

It does not matter which side of the “No Zeros” argument a teacher is on: What matters most is what is in the best interests of students. There are times when zeros are appropriate and other times when they are not. Sometimes an issue is black and white and sometimes we need to allow for gray areas. One cannot put the issue of using zeros into a nice, neat box. Grading for some will involve taking into consideration the effort and responsibility on the part of the student. This may mean that a teacher will allow for students to turn in work later than the due date. It may also mean that a teacher will give a zero to a student who has had ample time to finish an assignment.

Teacher accountability is important, but in the process of developing a more accountable system, grading flexibility should not be sacrificed. Teaching must ultimately be done by teachers—not by policies that restrict teachers’ ability and flexibility. The more teachers are empowered to connect with their students through the art of teaching, the more qualified they will be in determining the proper grading of student work at both the individual and group level. While, completely doing away with zeros gets a zero in my grade book, compassionate accountability always gets an A+.

Shannon Varriale teaches seventh grade social studies at Crest Middle School in Shelby, NC. She will graduate in December with a Masters in Middle School Education from Gardner Webb University.
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