Saturday, June 2, 2012

Is "no zeros" just gaming the stats?

An Edmonton teacher was suspended indefinitely for refusing to follow a Principal's "no zero" policy. The policy requires that teachers do not assign zeros to incomplete work. Instead, teachers are meant to prod the students to do the work but in the end assign a grade only on the work actually completed.

While the supposed rationale for this policy is to provide students opportunities to complete work and gain credit without punitive measures, most teachers will tell you it doesn't work. In many jurisdictions where secondary level students can't fail or can't be assigned a failing grade or lose marks for work that is late, teachers have noticed that bad habits get worse. Less work is done. More work is late.

Now this is a complicated question. One of the issues that rarely gets discussed is that school is coercive, and so grading and marks serve a dual purpose - one is to reflect genuine assessment, the other is to provide external motivation to reluctant learners.

I am sympathetic with some of the arguments on both sides, but I don't believe the Edmonton Board is genuine in the reasons given for the policy. Disengagement and low graduation rates are real problems. But the answer is not to "game the stats" by discounting work not done and not including these results in marks. I don't know all the details, but some comment writers on the newspaper blogs have pointed to the funding system in Alberta and suggested that the policy helps schools get additional funding. If this is true, then the policy is perhaps there for ulterior motives.

But regardless, the way to address substantive learning issues is not through tinkering with grading policies. It reminds me of the endless debates about semestered versus linear timetables in secondary schools. It is like shifting the deck chairs on the Titanic.

Students who are disengaged and unmotivated require intervention. This requires money. Chronic under funding has stretched our school systems to a point where there are no extra hours in anyone's day to really connect with students who need it or to intervene effectively when learning issues arise. How does a teacher reach out to failing students when they teach over 200 per year? How do we address emotional needs with one teacher counselor for every 500 students? How can teachers develop more engaging lessons when they work 60 hour weeks? How can we address special needs when Special Education teachers see them 15 minutes per week? How can students thrive when they live in poverty?

Tinkering with grading rules is not the answer, and it can actually be dishonest.


  1. I was probably one of the newspaper commenters who mentioned that the "no-zero" policy is used to keep students at school since schools in many parts of Canada receive funding per student.

    As an elementary supply teacher who has taught homeroom classes at different times, I can understand having a "no-zero" policy for primary and junior students. Then again, some of the assessment and evaluation is based on observing students. At the intermediate and senior levels, personal observations may be difficult when a teacher must work with 150 to 200 students per week.

    Teachers in the primary and junior grades work with students to develop their self-regulation and learning skills. At the intermediate and senior levels, the students should be applying their learning skills when working on assignments. They need to understand the importance of completing assignments (or not completing them). Unless a student has an IEP, he/she should be able to complete tasks on time.

    When I taught students in grades-seven and eight, I did record their non-existent work as zeroes. Some students didn't understand why they were getting 60% averages (mean or modal) when they were completing 80% work. I informed them that they had not handed in some work. If they hand in their work, I would assess and evaluate it.

    Most teachers are flexible with the marking of assignments. They may give a student who has been sick for a week or two an exemption from completing an assignment or two so long as the student is able to demonstrate knowledge of the curriculum in other ways. Teachers will bump up that 69% to 70% on a report card. For some students, I did adjust their marks upward if I felt that they showed improvement that could not be calculated based on statistical information alone.

    I do think that "zeroes" are necessary for older students who fail to hand-in assignments without a valid reason. They need to understand the rewards of completing an assignment and the consequences for not doing so.

  2. A retired teacher, I offered my thoughts on the Edmonton situation on my politics blog. If you are interested, here is the link:

  3. Deadlines are important. In a well planned course, the concepts scaffold on each other from assignment to assignment. If a student hasn't completed an assignment on time, he may not have rehearsed the concept well enough to be ready to move on to the next concept. This slows the pace of learning. In the current system, where class sizes are growing, it becomes impossible for a teacher to teach according to the individual pacing of each student. When students know that deadlines are loose, even the most capable students will procrastinate.

    And before anyone says that education is not for the convenience of the teacher, let me remind you that every aspect of our society has office hours, including medical clinics, passport offices, banks, law courts, victim services, churches, funeral homes, hospitals, government legislatures, and grocery stores. To say that schools should be different is absurd. And teachers themselves are subject to deadlines that won't wait for students to get their work done.

  4. In this Saturday's paper, the Times Colonist had a lengthy piece on this topic. I wrote a condensed version of the following to the Editor on Sunday:

    This is my experience with "no zeros" and "no lates"--basically adopting a model of assessment that does not incorporate one’s work habits. A.k.a: Assessment for Learning

    For my below average students, this model worked extremely well. It kept them in my courses (Math and Physics) for longer; I had way fewer drop outs. They may not have been learning the prescribed learning outcomes, but they were learning something and by attending for the duration, I do believe that they were better served in the long run.

    In the two years that I adopted this model, however, I saw an overall drop in class averages and a higher increase in stress and anxiety, especially with my high achieving students. Why? Students (as do adults) naturally procrastinate. In the absence of deadlines, work was put off and retests accumulated. At report card time, it was not uncommon to have students catching up on weeks of work in a very short period of time. Some students would have a retest planned for each day of the week, in the final week of class.

    I polled my students and it was virtually unanimous from them that THEY WANTED MORE STRUCTURE. Again, I teach mostly post-secondary bound students. These are the movers and the shakers of the school both academically and through leadership.

    When I brought back deadlines, zeros and limitations on the number of permitted retests, I was thanked!! My averages went back up to before; students are distributing their time better.

    I believe that the problem with what is being discussed here is that it seems that people are assuming that all students need to be treated the same way. They don’t. Some need zeroes; others do not. Everyone is going to thrive under their own terms. Treating students fairly does not mean that we should be treating them equally.

    ...I originally wrote this on a teacher's blog who is a very active proponent of not giving zeros. His response was to comment that assignments that are boring and irrelevant need to be threatened with the mark of zero in order to motivate students. Needless to say, I am a wee bit offended! My lessons are a lot of things... Boring and irrelevant are not two of them.