Sometimes students just deserve a grade of zero

How much should a pilot get paid if she never flies a plane? How about a doctor who never treats a patient? Or a car salesman who fails to sell a single car?

If you answered zero, you live in the real world. Employees don’t get paid for doing nothing. It’s common sense.

However, many schools seem to have a different perspective. For example, many school administrators have introduced a grading for learning approach, part of which prohibits teachers from giving a mark of zero to students with incomplete assignments. Instead of a zero, teachers must assess students only on the work they actually submit.

In other words, students who don’t hand in many assignments can still pass their courses if they do well on the few they do submit.

Lynden Dorval teaches high school physics at Edmonton’s Ross Sheppard High School. With 35 years of experience, he recently refused to comply with the absurd grading policy that prohibited teachers from assigning zeros for incomplete work. He went on giving zeros despite warnings from his principal. Eventually, he was suspended and could very well lose his job.

From a legalistic perspective, the board has every right to suspend Dorval and even terminate his employment. According to Alberta’s School Act, boards may suspend teachers who fail to follow a lawful directive from the board. While the assessment policy in question may be misguided, teachers are required to follow lawful directives from their employer. Schools could not function if teachers disregarded any policy they disagreed with.

That being said, most people recognize there is something intuitively wrong with an assessment policy that prohibits teachers from assigning zeros for work that has not been done. The fact that many of Dorval’s colleagues and students are rallying behind him should also be a clear sign that something is amiss. The superintendent and principal are defending a policy that may be lawful, but which most members of the public consider indefensible.

On June 1st, Edmonton superintendent Edgar Schmidt published an open letter to defend the indefensible. He defends the policy of not giving zeros and tries to present it as a superior way of holding students accountable.

“Our approach to missed assignments is to work with each student to find out the reason they did not turn in an assignment. Once a teacher finds out the reason, they work with the student to come up with a solution to address the situation. They agree to a plan to turn in future assignments and the teacher holds the student accountable,” explains Schmidt.

The explanation fails to address the fact that some students simply choose not to do their work. Dorval didn’t automatically assign zeros to students the moment an assignment didn’t come in. Rather, he worked with students and reminded them of the importance of submitting their work. When that fails, there needs to be a tangible consequence for those students who choose not to submit assignments. The new assessment policy naively ignores the realities of human nature.

Ross Sheppard High in Edmonton is by no means the first to experiment with this failed approach. In fact, Manitoba and Ontario had provincial assessment policies that prohibited or discouraged teachers from deducting marks from late assignments or assigning a mark of zero for incomplete work. However, opposition from the public in both instances led both governments to retreat.

Many aspects of the so-called grading for learning approach are positive and would likely have broad-based public support. For example, grading for learning encourages teachers to drop the common practice of basing individual student assessment on group assignments. It also makes a clearer distinction between assignments given for the purpose of preliminary feedback (formative assessment) and final marks (summative assessment). These are sensible reforms but have been overshadowed by the no-zeros policy.

School administrators have a choice. They can focus on common sense assessment reforms that would have broad-based public support or they can stand behind a foolish no-zeros policy supported by a handful of education consultants.

Let’s hope common sense prevails for once in our education system.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy and a public high school teacher. His column is distributed through Troy Media.

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