Thursday, June 14, 2012

Zeroes and Grading

John Scammell is a math teacher turned Field Services Facilitator for the Alberta Assessment Consortium. This post first appeared on his blog here.

by John Scammell

I used to punish students with grades. I taught high school mathematics, and I believed I was holding my students accountable and preparing them for the real world by giving them zeros when they didn’t do something I wanted them to do. I was wrong.

About ten years ago, my principal told me to stop giving zeros. I didn’t understand why she had removed something I was using to control kids. I spent the next few years trying to figure out why I shouldn’t give zeros. Because I did the research, I became a better teacher.

There seems to be a perception that giving zeros means a teacher has high standards. This notion is incorrect for two reasons. First of all, the only standards that are assessable are the ones outlined in our curricula. A student’s grade should reflect level of performance against these standards. Secondly, this perception of high standards is based on some arbitrary standard of behavior and accountability. I would contend that giving zeros to students actually lowers this standard.

I no longer give zeros, and I believe that my standards of accountability are higher than they were before. Giving a zero is equivalent to letting the student quit. Students will say to me, “Just give me the zero. I don’t feel like doing the work.” Letting students quit does not teach them responsibility or prepare them for the real world. Making them do the work does. Letting them off the hook effectively lowers the standards of accountability.

The message I give my students is that they must finish what they start. Responsible adults finish what they start. I want my students to turn into responsible adults. When students are missing something I absolutely must grade, I make them do it. If students won’t, I involve their parents and the school administration. The message I am sending is that I expect students to complete their tasks. That’s accountability. That’s responsibility. That’s life. My standards of accountability are high because I do not let my students opt out of their work.

As I see it, teaching involves two main jobs. I need to teach the curriculum to the best of my ability. Then I need to accurately assess and report the progress of my students. Good assessment practice dictates that the grade I assign should reflect what the student knows compared to the curriculum. Nothing else is gradable. The student who comes to class smiling every day with the proper materials and homework done is a joy to teach. If that student, however, cannot demonstrate adequate performance compared to the curricular standards, he/she fails. I am in no way suggesting that we pass students who can’t meet the curricular standards. We do, however, need to ensure we have accurate and meaningful evidence before we judge.

Some students are difficult. Some students frequently skip class, are disruptive, unpleasant, and unprepared. Difficult children that can demonstrate that they meet the curricular standards, though, should pass the class even if they are missing an assignment or two. If a student has missed so many assessments that I can’t evaluate accurately, then I shouldn’t assess by guessing. Such students will either have to make up missing work in a timely manner, or they may have to repeat or extend the course. I will not randomly choose to give a grade of zero, or any other number unsupported by evidence. It wouldn’t be an accurate reflection of what the child knows compared to the curriculum.

We need to remember that the vast majority of our students do everything we ask of them. Only a handful of students consistently fail to do the assessments we need them to do. We shouldn’t punish those students with a grade of zero any more than we would punish them with the strap. We all agree that the strap is archaic and has no place in schools, don’t we? A zero is no different than the strap. It’s an inappropriate response to a behavior.

We can do better. We can raise our standards of accountability by insisting that students finish what they start. We can insist they improve on substandard work. We can ask them to put in extra hours to make up what they have missed. In fact, we owe it to them. These expectations are the things their employers and post-secondary teachers should be asking of them, too.

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