A teacher in Canada was recently suspended because he gave students zeros for missing work, which was against the policy of his school district.
Whether or not to give zeros is a big controversy among teachers.
Some say that if a student doesn’t turn in work, the zero is an accurate assessment and appropriate punishment. But others, like Joe Bowers and Ken O’Connor, say that giving zeros amounts to hurting children and discouraging learning. If an A is 90, a D is 60 and an F is 50, then why go down to zero for missing?
This debate is fraught with emotion. Everyone has gone through school, so the typical way we think of grades is deeply rooted. The 100-point scale seems natural, and so does the zero for missing work. After all, isn’t school supposed to prepare students for the real world, and shouldn’t they be held accountable for messing up?
I’ve thought about grading policies for a while. Some years, I’ve tried standard-based grading systems, which largely get away from the 100-point scale and emphasize progress toward learning outcomes rather than student effort. Other years (like this one), I’ve gone with an extremely traditional grading method: a strict 1,000 points for the semester.
And this is what I’ve realized: Assessment and grading are two completely different things. Yes, students should know their strengths and weaknesses, and giving them a grade or points by assignment does not help them grow. On the other hand, the grade is a helpful summary of a student’s performance in your class — and a requirement in most schools at the end of the semester.
I’ve also realized that although I appreciate the no-zero philosophy, grades must reflect the combination of performance and effort. After all, to be a good student does not just mean knowing the content or being able to write a good essay. Rather, it means having the habits of being a good student.
The answer to the no-zeros debate is to separate big, required assignments from small, practice assignments. If a student misses a small assignment, she should receive a zero and be factored into the habits-of-work grade. But if a student misses a large assignment, which aligns with one of the major outcomes of the course, she should receive an incomplete and be required to complete the work, hopefully within a one-week window.
(Getting students to make up missing work, of course, is the hardest part. And one more thing: What’s the proper penalty for late work? More about those things in an upcoming post.)
What do you think about this grading controversy? Readers, I’d love to hear your viewpoints.