The Zero Effect

Posted on: Thu, 08/10/2017 - 09:00

For decades, most teachers have used percentages as the standard grading practice. And for decades, most people seemed to believe that any assignment a student didn’t complete should receive a zero.  At the very least, that approach seemed logical: you don’t get any credit for work you don’t do.

But as so often happens, logic takes on a different tone when you actually do the math and witness the devastating impact of a zero score on a student’s grade.

I have tried for many years to make the argument about not using zeroes by just “doing the math.” But it took a simple and straightforward explanation from a teacher at Oakdale High to really open my eyes.  During a conversation about grading, he asked, “Why do we have a grading scale that gives kids 10 ways to get an A or a B or a C or a D, but we give them 60 ways to get an E?” This isn’t a rhetorical question!

He suggested that instead of having a grading scale that went from 0 to 100, we should make the scale go from 50 to 100.  That way, every letter grade has 10 possible points. To me, that seems logical and reasonable. After all, most standardized tests have scales that start with a number other than zero.  

Finally, I had another compelling explanation I could use when trying to convince people that a “zero” is not in the best interest of students.  I just wish I had thought of it!

I suppose that some people might object to this approach, perhaps claiming that it touches on “grade inflation” or even that it’s not punitive enough. But for my colleague at Oakdale High and for me, it’s about fairness and doing what’s best for our students.

And then this teacher added the other reason he the non-zero scale.  “Have you ever tried to motivate a kid with an average of 27 to keep working to get her grade up to at least 60 so she could pass? he asked.” Not easy for her or the teacher! It is so much easier to convince her that she can do it when her average is 57.” 

I couldn’t have said it better!

What do other teachers and parents think about zeros? What’s the fairest system for grading student work? Tell me about it on Twitter @FCPSMDSuper. And whether or not you agree with this post, if you enjoyed it, please feel free to share it on Facebook or Twitter.