I spent some time in a school yesterday, talking with some teachers about a school-wide assessment policy that their school is implementing. It’s interesting for me to watch this process as an outside observer, because the questions and concerns the teachers have are almost identical to the questions and concerns I had 10 years ago when I first heard of “this no-zero thing”. I’ve moved way past those initial concerns, and it’s interesting to find myself trying to help others move past the same ones. Yesterday I was accused of having attended high school in the “touchy-feely 1970’s.” First of all, I’m not old enough to have attended high school in the 1970’s, and secondly, I am anything but touchy-feely.
I spent some time thinking about how my assessment practices have changed over the years. I asked myself what fundamental things I base my assessment practices on. Below are the results of my thinking and reflecting.
Fundamental Assumptions Shape My Assessment Policies
- The vast majority of my students do the vast majority of what I ask of them. These kids will be fine no matter what I do to them. We spend too much time worrying how kids will “play” us if we implement a flexible assessment system. I just haven’t seen it.
- Most of my students are good kids and don’t cheat. I will catch cheaters. I will punish them. That punishment won’t affect their grade. A teacher yesterday argued that she would have cheated her way through high school if she had known she couldn’t be given a zero. That says more to me about her, than it does about my assessment practices.
- I am not lowering my standards, but I will be flexible in how I allow students to show me they can meet my high standards. An initial reaction to my assessment presentations is often an accusation by teachers that I am lowering standards when I give kids second chances. They also suggest that I am being unfair to students who get it right the first time. They always go to some kind of doctor analogy, and say they want the responsible doctor who got the best grades by doing everything on time and right the first time. They can have him. I want the doctor who got it right the last 20 times. I don’t care whether he got it right the first time. The bottom line is, giving Kid B a second chance has absolutely no effect whatsoever on Kid A’s grade. They are unrelated events. The only way you think this is true, is if you believe our main role is to sort and rank kids. You don’t think that, do you? I think my job is to educate kids – All kids. Making me a sorter and ranker really devalues what I do.
- Some students don’t do what I ask of them because it is hard for them. I will support these students, and give them multiple opportunities to meet my standards.
- Some students don’t do what I ask of them because they lack motivation. I will support them and teach responsibility by insisting that they follow through and finish what they started. Teachers argue all the time that giving kids zeros holds them accountable and teaches them responsibility. This assumption is flat out untrue. A zero is a cop-out. It lets kids off the hook and tells them it’s OK not to do something. Kids will choose the zero because it’s easier than actually doing something, and it saves face if they know they will struggle with it. It’s safer to tell their peers that they took the zero because they didn’t do anything, rather than admit they struggle with something. Responsibility in my world means finishing what I start, and re-doing it if it isn’t done well enough the first time. I want my kids to approach school the same way.
- A grade will reflect performance against the curriculum, and nothing more. Behavior will not be rewarded or punished through grades.
I understand the frustrations and questions that teachers have when they first hear of this (although it surprises me a little that there are still teachers hearing of this for the first time). I used to feel the same frustrations and ask the same questions. I once argued on the other side of these discussions. Because I have made the shift myself, I think I can help teachers understand why there is a better way. I’m here for you if you need me.
Here’s an earlier post that addresses my thoughts on skills required of engineers.
This is an earlier post on the use of zeros.