Here’s another frequent comment from people outraged that we aren’t being hard enough on kids by awarding zeros.
Zero work, zero grade. It’s the logical consequence.
I want to address this one, because I really want to get into what we mean by “work”.
What people mean by work, when they say this, probably varies from person to person. We’re probably not using common language. In the hope that some of the general public finds this blog, I’m going to address this question using common assessment language.
In school, work really consists of two things. There is the day-to-day work that the students do to learn the material. We call this kind of work “formative”. We should never count for marks that which is formative. I would never give an assessment for marks in the middle of the learning. Formative assessments are things like journals, small worksheets, short quizzes, take home questions and so on. The goal of formative assessment for the student is to get feedback that is free of risk (won’t affect his grade) and will help him prepare for the bigger assessment. For the student, formative assessments answer the question, “what do I still have to learn before I’m ready for the test?” The goal of formative assessment for the teacher is to get feedback as to whether or not she needs to adjust her instruction. For the teacher, formative assessment answers the question, “Are my kids getting this?” Again, formative assessment is for learning. It is not for marks.
Then there are the major things on which students demonstrate whether or not they have learned the material. These things count for marks. These assessments are things like tests, essays, labs, major projects, and many others. These assessments are called “summative”. Summative assessments must occur after the learning has occurred. They are typically given at the end of a unit of study, or at the end of a course.
The appropriate number of summative assessments varies by course and teacher and subject area. In high school math, most of our courses have between 15 and 25 outcomes. I don’t need 15 to 25 summative assessments to get an idea of how my students are performing. I group the outcomes together in logical ways, and I typically have between 4 and 10 summative assessments in a course. That works out to about one every two weeks. Some teachers spend a lot of time chasing kids to do 3 homework questions that should have been formative anyhow. I don’t do that. Anymore.
So now that we’ve defined the “work” that we ask kids to do, let’s look at the natural consequences of students refusing to do that work.
Formative assessment is to help students learn. Students who choose not to do formative assessments will impede their own learning. The natural consequence of impeding your own learning is that you won’t do as well as you could have on the summative assessment. Their grade will be affected if they don’t do their homework, but it won’t be affected by me putting 0 in the grade book. It will be affected because when they write the test, they won’t do as well as they might have, had they chosen to do the homework. This result is a clear, logical, and natural consequence of not doing the formative work.
Some people will argue that kids will never do things if they are not for marks. I said that exact same thing when I first heard about this formative assessment stuff. I can tell you that my experience suggests otherwise. Kids are happy to do things in a risk-free environment. They really do value the feedback they get because they know it helps prepare them for the unit-end summative assessment.
So now that I’ve got my course down to 4-10 things that are summative, I need to make sure every one of my kids completes those summative assessments so I can accurately judge their performance compared to my curriculum. Most kids do everything I need them to do and most kids do them on time. Some kids take longer and cause me a little more grief, but I almost always get all the summative assessments done for all my kids. In 5 years at an average of 32 students per class and 7 classes per year, I have seen approximately 1120 students through their math classes. Only one student failed to do all the summative assessments I needed him to do. That’s less than 1 in 1000. All the rest got done what I asked. Remember folks, the vast majority of our teenagers are pretty good kids.
What was the consequence for the one student who didn’t get the summative assessments done? He repeated the course. Simple. Logical. Natural.
Pre-emptive note to the commenter who is going to say: “No way you passed the rest of the 1119 students.” I didn’t say all the rest passed. Some did everything I asked and demonstrated that they couldn’t meet the curricular requirements. They failed. And I felt awful for them. Then I reflected on what I could have done better to help them learn. I hate it when kids fail my class.