Zero’s Nothing, Right, so What’s Wrong with It?

There’s a lively conversation in my province around something called a “no-zero policy.” This was something several school districts implemented several years ago, however there seems to be no evidence of any such thing being currently in existence in the current school board configuration. At the moment it’s my understanding that new policy is being written and that in the meantime the existing regions that were folded into a larger board are expected to continue with whatever they previously had. The “no zero” policy applies variously, then, depending on where you are located. That, however, does not seem to matter  to anyone, especially now in pre-election times when cries of “end the no-zero policy” seem to be coming from several quarters, with the assumption that at the moment it applies to all.

Just what is a no-zero policy and why do some think it’s important? And, just as importantly why are others so bitterly opposed to it?

Let’s try and make it simple. It’s generally reported that “no zero policies” state that students cannot be given a grade of zero for late, un-submitted, or plagiarized work. The most often reported justification is that evaluation consultants (who are sometimes accused in the media of never having to step foot into a classroom) recommend this because young people should not be unduly punished for making the kind of stupid mistakes they have always been want to make. Presumably by offering second chances the students have the chance to learn by their mistakes and, hopefully, not suffer any long-term negative consequences as a result.

Sounds OK, right? So why is it that so many are bitterly opposed to it?

For an answer to that let’s briefly consider human nature. What if there were absolutely no consequences for not submitting work on time or not being honest, that is, plagiarizing work? To answer that, just ask this question: why do we insist that work get passed in on time and that it be the individual’s own efforts? Simple—if you don’t do that, many (perhaps even most) will not bother putting in the required effort and will just put it off for some other time. That’s why we have deadlines and that’s also why we attach consequences to them. If we didn’t most work would never get submitted in a timely fashion and the small trickle of always-late work would result in very poor learning and an impossible-to-manage situation for the classroom teachers. Small wonder that much of the resistance to “no zero” policies comes from practicing teachers who are tired of dealing with this.

Well, then. Fine—it seems that, in light of this, it makes perfect sense to totally ditch no-policies, right? After all it’s one thing to give a student a break, but the removal of consequences in the form of zero-grades will likely result in a situation that is far worse: (a) students will do worse because they don’t take the assigned work seriously, always figuring they can do it later or maybe even get a do over and (b) the steady, unregulated trickle of inbound work that happens in the absence of enforced deadlines results in an unmanageable situation for the teacher.

Just think about how this might play out. Suppose that you are the type of student who leaves things until the last possible moment. In all likelihood there will come a time that you will finally have to deal with a back-load of work. Perhaps it’s the few days before the first progress reports are due to be sent home. “Alright,” you’ll say, “I can’t get zero so I won’t submit. What’s the worst that can happen?” So, the teacher does the best they can. When scanning through your work they notice that several important things were never submitted and so, instead of giving you a grade—as they should be able to; after all the work should be there to be evaluated; it’s not the teacher’s fault—they instead have to write something like, “I am unable to evaluate your son/daughter because they did not submit any work.”

Stay with me.

The report eventually gets home. In all likelihood the parents would have to find out about it themselves. After all, what student would be stunned enough to bring home what is essentially a blank report card? Perhaps the parents get notified via email, or maybe from a friend. Whatever. At any rate the parents / guardians eventually see it.

And freak out.

You know what happens next: angry words are exchanged with the child and then frantic calls are made to the schools. The end result is that the parent swears that the late work will be submitted asap. Within a few days the student brings a pile of paper to the teacher and dumps it on the desk. “Here’s all my late work.”

The teacher groans. First of all there’s really no telling how much of the work was the student’s own. Perhaps it was, but under the extremely tense situation that would have unfolded at home in all likelihood other hands were involved in the production. Perhaps the parents “helped” or maybe a tutor was enlisted. Perhaps—heaven forbid—some of the stuff was even purchased online. It’s easy to do that. The teacher knows that too, and then is left in the unfair position in which they have to make an evaluation based on work that may, or may not, have been done by the student.

It gets worse, though. Recall that this work was done at the last minute. This, in turn, places great strain on the teacher. Evaluating student work is always time consuming and difficult. It’s also best done efficiently and well when the tasks are combined and grouped. Simply put, a teacher can do a better job in marking all of the work at once than in doing it in dribs and drabs. It will take much longer overall and will likely not be done with the same level of consistency. The end result is not good—much more work for the teacher along with the likelihood that evaluation is nowhere at the same level of quality and consistency.

So, with that in mind it seems to make perfect sense to ban all mention of “no-zero” policies, right?

No, it doesn’t.

Why? It still could still be about the fact that young people do dumb things and need to be given second chances (a thing I wholeheartedly agree on, by the way) but even if, in light of the previous argument, we decided that human nature will have to trump humanity, there still remains a tricky, insurmountable obstacle: grades are not “rewards.”

What is a grade? There are two answers:

  • (The informal one that seems to be prevalent in general use) It is a reward for “good work.” The better the work the better the grade. No work, therefore, translates to a grade of zero.
  • (the CORRECT one) it is a measurement of how well the student has achieved the curriculum outcomes.

Curriculum outcomes? Since 1995 the curriculum in this province, and for that matter, the rest of Canada, has been defined in terms of specific curriculum outcomes. These are statements that express what students must be able to do and are organized more-or-less hierarchically, and broken down by key-stage (grades k-3, 4-6, 7-9,a high can be key stages), by course, and then down to more specific statements that apply to a given course at a given grade level.

For example, one specific outcome from grade 6 mathematics is, “express improper fractions as mixed numbers.” (Note: improper fractions have a larger number on the top and mixed numbers are a combination of a whole number and a fraction. For example 9/2 is an improper fraction that, when expressed as a mixed number is 4 1/2)

Every course is defined this way and the Department of Education (DOE) has expended considerable resources in developing curriculum guides for teachers that, among other things, explain and describe the outcomes, offer teaching suggestions (contrary to popular opinion the DOE does not prescribe the method by which they are taught. It prescribes the what, not the how. Take note you people stuck saying “oh the Department imposes discovery learning” nonsense.) along with suggested methods by which achievement of the outcomes can be evaluated.

Here’s how it works. The DOE describes what is to be taught and the school district takes care of getting the job done—the how. Teachers are therefore expected to provide evaluations that provide an indication of the extent to which the outcomes have been met. It’s all about the outcomes. They–and nothing else–are what define the curriculum. It’s not about what individuals feel should be in the curriculum but, rather, what’s been agreed to by curriculum committees staffed by teachers and led by officials from the DOE.

Evaluation? Grades are not rewards; they are measurements. In the example above it comes down to this: to what extent can the student write improper fractions as mixed numbers? In general terms a grade of 80-100 says they do it with excellence, a grade between, say 65 and 80 means they do it very well, a grade between 50 and 65 mean they do it reasonably well but could do better as this will impact future work. Grades below 50 mean that in the teacher’s professional opinion they do not do it well enough.

What, then, does a grade of zero mean?

This: that the student knows NOTHING WHATSOEVER about converting improper fractions to mixed numbers.

When a teacher assigns a grade of zero to a particular assessment they are certifying, professionally, using everything they have learned through 5-8 years of university learning (and backed up by numerous years of professional practice) that this is the case. A grade of zero, in this case means the teacher is saying “The student knows nothing whatsoever about improper fractions and that’s my professional judgement.”

Seriously, how can you certify that? They must know something about the topic.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking, “But, what else is the teacher to do? In all likelihood the student had loads of opportunity to show the teacher they could do this. There’s no way the teacher sprang the assessment on them at the last minute and surely the teacher would have been open to working something out if the student had to miss the assessment for a valid reason. It’s probably the case that the student threw away the chances they had and so, what else could the teacher have done? They deserved the zero and if we did this more often they’d probably pull up their socks and get the work done.”

There’s still the fundamental problem, though. The above argument just brought the whole thing back to the original—incorrect—definition of what a grade is. In the same way that a grade cannot be considered a reward for good work it also cannot be considered a punishment for un-submitted work. That’s not what assessment is about. Any way you look at it, as long as our curriculum is defined in terms of outcomes the grade has to be a measure of how well they have been achieved.

What then do you do in the case of un-submitted or plagiarized work?

That is the real question.

Let’s draw a box around the answer so before defining what one should do, let’s specify what you should NOT DO. You should not:

  • Assign an arbitrary zero as there’s no way the student knows nothing about the outcome.
  • Roll over and do whatever the student / parent wants you to do.

At this point in the essay the preachiness will come to an end. Clearly there are no simple answers but something needs to get worked out that is in everyone’s best interests. Perhaps this means a provisional “no-zero” that imposes practical limits to prevent abuse. Middle ground is the only workable solution but it’s very difficult to state the procedures in simple terms as by codifying the contingencies and responses, all you will do is (make a game of it and) construct something that starts to look as onerous as the criminal code of Canada! It might be best to express what is needed in the form of a framework, a more general set of intents and values that leaves the major decisions to the professional judgement of the teacher and school.

So what do you do when a student consistently fails to turn in work? You give them a reasonable opportunity to address the situation. Hopefully they will make good use of the chance given to them. Most will. What if they don’t? If there is evidence that the student has behaved in an unreasonable manner despite being given chances then an incomplete or failing grade will have to be justified and assigned. Recall that a zero grade doesn’t mean the student DID nothing, but rather that they KNOW nothing whatsoever. Frankly it`s difficult to see how anyone can score below, say, 20, so maybe that should be the arbitrary minimum.

But that’s not for me to say. It is, rather, an issue for the school district to continue to grapple with and hopefully it gets to do so without political interference. Know what? Right now, as the politicians rant and rave about the no-zero policy I’m willing to bet that teachers are busy behind the scenes trying to work through the complexities that have just been laid out. I wish them all the best.

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4 thoughts on “Zero’s Nothing, Right, so What’s Wrong with It?

  1. Mary

    Really interesting article. Teachers out here grappling with this idea of ‘no zero’ also. How to ensure that students are fairly assessed . I will pass this article on.

  2. Great analysis. It seems to me it’s confusing an assessment of ‘not showing up’ versus ‘inadequate skills’. Should there be another measure for not showing up that is not called ‘grades’? Something that finally will result in negative consequences as well – like students have to repeat a course or a full year? Consequences would be similar to zero grades, but it would be documented in certificates that students have been ‘lazy’ rather than ‘low performers’.

    1. That’s a thing that is an always will be controversial. As a teacher I have to admit that the single most important detriment to success is lack of effort. The thing then is to detwrmine wht the student is not putting in that effort with an eye to seeing if there’s something that can be done about it. Some students simply have checked out and that’s that. Many, though, come to school facing unfair challenges–bad homes, various illnesses, learning difficulties and such. In many cases these can be addressed once they’ve been identified. The thing is to spot the ones that are fixable.

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