No-Zero Grading? Are You Kidding Me?!
Should grades be used to punish, encourage, or reward students? In recent years, this enduring question has taken on fresh meaning thanks to various efforts to either implement or reject “no-zero” grading policies. With these policies, zeroes are off the table for students—instead, the minimum score a student could receive on an assignment or test would be somewhere around the 50-percent mark, depending upon the school district in question. From New Jersey to Arizona and points in between, school systems have been experimenting with such policies, often as a way to make classrooms and schoolwork more inclusive.
Some of the thinking behind this trend seems to have come from a 2004 piece by Douglas B. Reeves, who writes often about best practices in grading. In a piece for the Phi Delta Kappan magazine, Reeves described the temptation to penalize students—particularly students who do not turn in an assignment at all—by giving them a zero. As he phrased it, “there is an almost fanatical belief that punishment through grades will motivate students.” According to Reeves, not only is this questionable pedagogically, it also defies mathematical logic. If grades are assigned along an A-to-F scale, with A being equal to 100, he argued that it makes no sense for an F to somehow be worth zero points. After all, if the distance from A to B is 10 points, why should the distance from D to F be 60 points?
If anything, Reeves posited that a grade of F should be worth 50 points. “This is not—contrary to popular mythology—‘giving’ students 50 points; rather, it is awarding a punishment that fits the crime," he argued. "The students failed to turn in an assignment, so they receive a failing grade.”
In Chapter 1 of his book, “Charting a Course to Standards-Based Grading,” school administrator Tim Westerberg picked up Reeves’ critique of the apparent lack of math involved in giving students a zero on an A-to-F scale and moved further into the realm of why the practice may not help students learn. According to Westerberg, a punishing grade could send the message that the situation is hopeless. If multiple zeros start adding up, students “often give up” and get the erroneous message that they know nothing or that their cumulative work will mean nothing. In other words, there is no point in trying.
With this in mind, Westerberg and many others have argued that proficiency or mastery should be the actual goal for students, rather than punishment or a sense of hopelessness. New York-based educator and administrator Starr Sackstein, writing for Education Dive in 2018, made this blunt point: “We can’t assess like we were assessed.” In her piece, Sackstein described how as a high school teacher, she assessed her language arts students using a multitude of collaborative, interactive assignments as well as student-led reflections and self-evaluations. What Sackstein prioritized was a complex mix of creativity, mastery, and growth opportunities for students, as opposed to more punitive and traditional forms of grading and assessment reliant on end-of-unit tests, for example.
Now, Sackstein is an administrator. In this role, she explained that she wants her team to “take risks with their students” and resist the urge to “test them to death.” Reeves offered support for this idea in another article about how best to measure student work while nurturing further success. In Reeves' view, doling out grades should be just one portion of a well-rounded assessment plan, with plenty of chances for students to learn from their own mistakes rather than take the heat in the form of a one-time or cumulative zero. Feedback, intervention, and opportunities to make up or retake missed or failing work can lead to greater success.
This is not to say that no-zero policies are simple to implement; a 2017 look at how the practice has been adopted in various New Jersey school districts described both the strengths and challenges of moving to a grading system based on multiple chances for students. One problem could be the way such policies are delivered and decided upon. If they seem to come from the top without adequate teacher and parent input, educators may feel put upon or forced to adapt quickly to new, seemingly more work-intensive practices. A parent quoted in the article expressed a commonly reported question: Does giving students more than one opportunity to succeed amount to “coddling”?
A 2018 Edutopia piece served as a helpful roundup of some of the most relevant thinking around no-zero grading policies. Unintended consequences and negative outcomes of such policies are acknowledged in the piece, including the possibility that no-zero grading might dissuade students from putting their best effort into a class or an assignment. Besides, as some observers argued, the “real world” doesn’t offer many second or third chances. Still, the overview also provides examples of how some teachers and school districts have found a way to meet in the middle. Some teachers are both using the no-zero approach and finding a way to reward students who are putting more effort into their work, while others are assigning various categories—such as “DNA” for "did not attempt"—to help “contextualize the grade.”
The goal for many seems to be to try to find an effective way to a sweet spot where students are held accountable for their learning but not subjected to ineffective, illogical, or discouraging forms of grading and assessment.
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