But what does it teach them?

Still thinking about student assessment, and the use of zero for non-performance.

We had a bit of a local flap a couple of years back. The short story is that a local high school developed a policy whereby teachers were required to take action when assignments were not handed in. This action involved dealing directly with the student; if that failed, dealing directly with parents; if that failed, referring the discipline issue to administration. Zeros were not to be awarded to students for non-compliance. The administration argued that non-compliance is a behavioural issue, not an academic one. It is not clear what action the teacher was to take if administration could not get the student to do the work. A teacher, Mr. Lynden Dorval, refused to follow the policy, resulting in discipline, his firing, a media circus, his appeal, a board of reference determining that he shouldn’t have been fired, and his professional association determining that he had not violated the code of conduct. I’m not going to comment on the details of the case. If you Google it, you’ll find most of the details and tons and tons and tons of falsehoods. It’s a sorry state of affairs all around.

My interest today is in one of the main themes that emerged in the media circus, including letters to the editor and anonymous comments on news sites. I’ll pick this article from Canadian Family not because it’s particularly insightful (it isn’t) nor because it got the facts straight (it didn’t) but because it touches on a central concern that came out of the public discourse—are schools harming students’ moral development by not holding them accountable with zeroes?

(NB the article was written in the middle of the debacle, so the firing, board of reference ruling and professional association ruling were not yet part of the story.)

I argued in a previous post that marks and grades should serve two main functions: they should assess how much of the relevant curriculum that a student has learned and they should provide meaningful feedback to the student and teacher to assist future learning. A zero for non-performance does neither of these things. Worse yet, non-performance denies the student the opportunity to learn by doing the assignment in the first place.

The first error of the Canadian Family article is the claim that no-zero gives students a free pass. It most certainly does not. First of all, every effort should be made to ensure that the work is done. If it’s done, there is no free pass. Suppose, however, that the work never gets done; what then? If there is insufficient information to assess a student’s performance, the student should not be assigned a grade. It’s not that the student failed the course; the reality is that she didn’t complete it. As a teacher, I would simply show no mark for a student that did not provide sufficient evidence for me to conclude that she completed the course. Zero is a lie. I cannot conclude that the student knows 0% of the material; I cannot conclude anything about that student’s performance.

Ok, so the student doesn’t get a free pass by being forced to complete the assignment (or an equivalent assessment or whatever). What about responsibility. Giving a student a zero for failure to hand in an assignment teaches responsibility. Does it really? Certainly, the student faces a consequence of the action. Of course a detention or some other sanction would do the same thing. What’s so special about the zero? In fact, would all students find the zero to be a punishment? For most students, a zero lowers their class mark but still leaves them with enough marks to pass the course. It’s hard to see the punitive value. For students for whom every percentage point matters, it’s a serious consequence (e.g. applying for scholarship; mark-driven parents, etc.) but these aren’t the students who fail to hand things in. In some cases it could make the difference between passing and failing; but in these cases the student has more serious issues to deal with, I’ll warrant. The main point here is that if you believe that the non-performing student should be punished, there are many, many possible punishments. What makes the zero the only alternative in some people’s minds?

I know that what I have written has the potential to really anger some people. I’m not sure why. The goal of public education is for students to learn the curriculum. The point of assignments is for students to learn, for teachers to get information about the students’ learning, and for students to get feedback to improve. Everybody wants students to learn, and everybody wants students to take responsibility for their actions. I just don’t understand why so many people think that using grades as cattle prods achieves any of these goals.


2 thoughts on “But what does it teach them?

  1. Great blog, John. This is a question with which we have wrestled for a long time in the schools where I have taught.

    I see a couple of possible solutions.

    1) For homework assignments and weekly quiz type assignments, base grades on the number of assignments turned in. Such assignments should be about practice, and as such should not be graded for correctness. They are more in the way of formative assessments. So, a 100 for 100% turned in, an 80 for 80%, a zero for 0% turned in. Of course, this grade would be only one part of the student’s final grade in the course.

    2) For major papers, students may revise until they get the grade they are happy with. Yes, lots more work for teachers. But learning revision is, to my mind, an essential, invaluable part of a student’s education. Things get better over time because we have reflected on our work and then applied those lessons to our work. This is really the heart of being a productive adult–learning a process of working. If we are really serious about “preparing students for their future,” then there can be nothing more valuable for students to learn than that great work doesn’t just magically appear; it’s a process of work, reflection, revision, work, reflection, revision. And that applies to all work.

    3) For final exams, students who don’t turn them in, or fail, get an Incomplete for the course. That is, no credit, as if the courses were never taken. The grade is changed without penalty when the student learns the material. I don’t understand why we penalize students for having different rates of learning. We should reward students for being persistent in the face of obstacles, and help them deal with those obstacles. Perfectionism, disorganization, low self-esteem, missing key skills, procrastination, fear of asking questions, are all obstacles they will face in the real world if they are not dealt with in school. The point is not to punish those behaviors (which largely persist despite punishment), but to learn how to deal with them.

    Of course, these issues really get to the heart of what we think schools, grades, and assessments are really about. If they are really about other than sorting, that is, about teaching students to maximize their potential, then any use of grading except as useful feedback to the students and parents is destructive in my opinion.

    There will be resistance to such ideas. “Students need to learn to work to a deadline.” True, at times, but overrated, and emphasized at the expense of thoughtful revision. Once a student learns what their own process of learning is, s/he is much more able to fit a timetable, as trust in one’s own powers grow, and much less time is wasted in procrastination and self-doubt.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for the note, Jack. I completely agree. Ultimately our job is help students to learn. And sometimes it means extra work for both students and teachers.

      And I couldn’t agree more that “learning to work to a deadline” is important but way over-rated. Further it’s not clear that using the deadline to eliminate the possibility of completion provides the character lesson desired.


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