In the past few weeks, I have been fortunate enough to attend two assessment conferences. I went to the Solution Tree assessment conference in Calgary, and attended and presented at the Alberta Assessment Consortium Fall Conference in Edmonton. Because assessment is foremost in my mind these days, many of my conversations with teachers turn to assessment practices. Teachers inevitably ask about the assigning of zeros. High school math teachers, in particular, seem to be troubled by the idea that zeros have no place in a grade book.
After a recent session I did on assessment, one teacher told me that she was on board with revising her assessment practices, but her principal had told her that in a high school, they still had to give zeros. I had a principal sitting behind me on a recent flight conversing way too loudly with her neighbor about how a no zero policy is really frustrating for her. Part of me wants to suggest that perhaps we have missed educating our leaders about assessment practices, but I know there are principals who totally get it, just as there are teachers who do not.
Let me state emphatically that zeros have no place in a grade book. Teachers tell me that entering a zero “holds kids accountable.” That statement is false. Making kids do the work holds them accountable. Giving them a zero lets them off the hook. Part of this misconception comes from some serious flaws in our reporting practices in Alberta. At the high school level in Alberta, we must assign a percentage grade. These grades affect everything from University acceptance (we have no SAT type tests) to scholarships. In essence, the main purpose of our assessment in Alberta seems to be to sort kids for external organizations, not to help out the student. As such, teachers think it isn’t fair if one student hands the work in on time and another hands it in late with no consequences. They think this is unfair because we value (and therefore, rank) the student who turns in her work on time higher than we value the student who turns his work in late. We must deal with the late work, but not by reducing the grade. The work must be judged on its merit.
Some teachers have been let off the hook by administrators who tell them to make every effort to collect student work, but if it is still missing at the end of the course then a zero should be entered. Even this zero does not belong in the grade book. Teachers can use professional judgement to assign whatever grade they feel accurately reflects the knowledge the student has compared to our curriculum standards. If a student missed some assignments or tests, but will get 85% on the final exam, why would you put in a bunch of zeros that will skew her mark downward? If the student has missed so much of the course that you can’t predict with some certainty whether the student is capable of passing the course, then the student should be given an incomplete in the course and be made to repeat it. Some hard decisions need to be made at the end of a course. It should be noted, however, that the vast majority of our students do the vast majority of the work we assign them. We are talking about only a handful of kids here who struggle to meet our expectations. We must put personal feelings about the value of work habits aside and assess the student’s ability to meet curricular standards, regardless of whether that student attended all the classes or turned in all the work.
Zeros never belong in a grade book, unless the student truly knows nothing. If I had a student in my class who I believed truly knew nothing, then I would suggest that I failed that student, not the other way around.
Further reading on the subject:
- Shawn Cornally’s SBG (Standards Based Grading) Blog – Great stuff on the subject
- Rick Wormelli – Fair Isnt’ Always Equal – The first book I ever read on assessment
- Ken O’Connor – A Repair Kit For Broken Grading – Really good take on the problems with our current practices
- Damian Cooper Workshops – This guy rocked the Solution Tree Conference in Calgary