Try not to laugh… I bet you can’t!
The Zero Article That Changed My Mind
Abstract
This reflection looks at Case Study 2: Interim Report Card Grades, Case Study 4: Hiring a Student, and Case Study 6: All or Some. Case Study 2 highlights the effects of assigning a zero and how detrimental this practice can be to a student’s overall grade. Furthermore, zeros are misleading and do not accurately represent what a student achieved or learned during a semester. Case Study 4 analyses how grades can be misinterpreted and often do not provide a clear picture to students, employers, teachers and parents about what a student knows and can demonstrate. How teachers choose to weight assignments has an impact on the overall mark a student receives and this choice can vary from school to school and/or classroom to classroom. Case Study 6 deals with number crunching and evaluating students before they have had adequate practice time. To deconstruct these case studies, current research on high school grading trends and personal experiences will be used.
Keywords – number crunching, assessment, evaluation, grade reporting, overall achievement, feedback, gradebook, zeros
Case Studies
Case Study 2: Interim Report Card Grade
In Case Study 2 the student received a zero on one assignment because they were absent. As a result, the report card shows that they have a 68.8 percent overall average after the first four weeks of classes. However, the lowest mark the student received was a 62.5 percent on one assignment that was weighted out of eight. The student received a 90 percent or higher on the majority of their assignments. If the zero was not reported the student would have an 81.6 percent average.
I personally would give the student the 81.6 percent because I believe it better reflects what he or she has learned and/or demonstrated. I also think the student will be more motivated to keep up the good work if they see an 81.6 percent versus a 68.8 percent. The current research suggests that zero grades are an unfair and inaccurate marking practice and this case study illustrates how misleading a zero grade can be. A 68.8 percent is not a fair representation of this student’s overall achievement, when the majority of their assignments are in the 90 percent range or higher.
What bothers me most about the student receiving the 68.8 percent is that they were absent for the test. Todd Rogers, a psychologist from University of Alberta, suggests that “a zero indicates the student knows nothing about a topic when they might actually know plenty… the mark of incomplete is more honest” (Sands, “Educators defend no-zero rule”). Based on the other marks that the student has received, I believe he or she understands the content and could do quite well on the test, if given the opportunity. I think the student should get a chance to take the test and in the meantime the assignment could register as ‘incomplete’ so that it does not skew the overall average for the first four weeks. The goal is for students to meet the curriculum outcomes; if students are not given the chance to demonstrate their knowledge then zeros are used to punish their behavior rather than representing their knowledge of an outcome (Bower, “Giving zeros a power trip”). I am just starting to grasp this concept, as I am very much imbedded in our grading system. I used to agree with the critics that the no-zero policy would not prepare kids for “the real world” and that fifties would become the new zeros. I also used to think that giving second chances or extended due dates was not fair to students who met the deadlines and were present. I am now realizing that all students have different circumstances and furthermore, giving zeros does not hold students responsible to complete their work. This case study has taught me that the zero – which actually represents that the student missed a day of classes in a four week period – not only punishes the student but disrupts the learning process. This zero does not indicate that the student does not know the content or only knows 68.8 percent of it, for that matter. Instead, the zero is used to punish a behavior that has nothing to do with the student’s overall understanding of the curricular outcomes.
This case study highlights many tensions amid our current grading system. First and foremost, it shows that zeros can be detrimental to students because they are misleading and an inaccurate representation of the acquired knowledge. Also, in this case study students are receiving grades for every assignment, including daily work. This means that their practice time is being evaluated. Davies (2011) notes that “students need a chance to practice” and she proposes that “increasing the amount of descriptive feedback, while decreasing evaluative feedback, increases student learning significantly” (p. 2-3). The numbered average does little to show how the student is doing, in regards to the curricular outcomes, whereas, feedback would be much more informative. Bower suggests that we treat assessment like “a needed conversation between a teacher and student” rather than “a spreadsheet” of misleading grades (“Giving zeros a power trip”). Giving a zero would most likely result in an unmotivated student who now has an inaccurate perception of their overall achievement. Bower notes that students who receive zeros are more likely to drop out or become unmotivated (“Giving zeros a power trip”). I would have had an emotional breakdown if this would have happened to me in high school. Thus, I do not think a grade of zero is appropriate (assuming that the student has not refused the opportunity to retake the test) and I believe that feedback after four weeks would be more beneficial and create a continuous learning process.
Case Study 4: Hiring a Student
Case Study 4 illustrates what grades fail to communicate about student achievement to parents, employers, educators and students. Based on the information in Scenario A, Student 1 would get the job. They received 0/25 in practical knowledge – which makes me question if they missed the test or assignments? – and 71/75 on theory. Student 2, on the other hand, received 25/25 on practical knowledge but only 27/75 on theory. Thus, when the weights of practical and theory are rated out of 25 and 75 respectfully, Student 1 receives an overall grade of 71 percent and Student 2 receives an overall grade of 52 percent. If a manager at the local auto repair shop looked at these marks, he or she would hire Student 1 because they appear to be more competent.
However, in Scenario B Student 1 receives an overall grade of 47 percent and Student 2 receives an overall grade of 68 percent. This is because both practical and theoretical aspects were weighted equally out of 50. Student 1 receives 0/50 and 47/50 but Student 2 receives 50/50 and then 18/50. In Scenario C, the weights of practical and theoretical knowledge are weighted 75 and 25 respectively. This reverses the weights in Scenario A. Student 1 receives a 0/75 and a 24/25, resulting in an overall grade of 24 percent. Student 2 receives 75/75 and then 9/25, resulting in an overall grade of 84 percent. Therefore, if a manager was comparing marks based on Scenario B or C, Student 2 would receive the job.
This case study shows the discrepancies of grades and the effects of teacher choices on the worth of course components. Guskey (2011) notes that “what one teacher considers in determining students’ grades may differ greatly from the criteria used by other teachers… even in schools were established grading policies offer guidelines for assigning grades” (p. 85). This affects student motivation, class choices, post-secondary admissions, job choices and scholarship success. I think we need consistent assessment practices because grades determine the future for our students. I would allow students to choose how to weight their assignments and tests so that they could play to their individual strengths, yet still complete all course components. This choice could be made within assignments on the rubrics or between all of the class assignments through a student-teacher contract.
I honestly do not know what scenario I think is fair because I do not know what each component encompasses. This once again highlights how poor report cards are at communicating learning achievement and tasks. One suggestion I would have for this teacher is dropping low quiz scores or providing second chances. I used to believe that students should not all have eighties and/or get second chances but I am now realizing the purpose is for students to meet the curricular outcomes – albeit, at their own pace – and learning is not about competing for grades. As Guskey (2011) notes “grades have long been identified by those in the measurement community as prime examples of unreliable measurement” (p. 85). I think this will be one of the biggest challenges in teaching: how do you decide what learning or skills are more important than the others? Unless we create consistent guidelines to follow, grades will continue to be misleading and very few students will benefit.
Case Study 6: All or Some
Case Study 6 shows the parachute-packing test results of three students. Student 1 was above the competency/mastery level for the first five tests. However, tests six to nine are scored well below the mastery level. Student 2 started at the mastery level, scored above the mastery level on tests two, four, six, and eight, but below the mastery level on tests three, five, seven, and nine. Student 3 was well below the mastery level for the first three tests, fell just below the mastery level on tests four to six, but made improvements on each test thereafter and scored above the mastery line on tests seven to nine.
Based on these results, I would want Student 3 to pack my parachute. Student 1, although he or she started strong, is well below the mastery level on the last four tests. Student 2 has very inconsistent results. But student 3 has consistently improved since test one and has been well above the mastery line for the last three tests. This student has the most consistent and reliable results and I would feel safest with them packing my parachute. It does not matter to me that Student 1 used to be able to pack a parachute and I do not want to take a chance that Student 2 is having a good day.
If this was represented on a grade book, it would look very similar to the chart below (the grades are an estimate):
Test |
Student 1 |
Student 2 |
Student 3 |
1 |
70 |
50 |
20 |
2 |
60 |
65 |
25 |
3 |
70 |
45 |
35 |
4 |
60 |
75 |
47 |
5 |
80 |
45 |
45 |
6 |
45 |
75 |
45 |
7 |
40 |
45 |
60 |
8 |
35 |
60 |
75 |
9 |
30 |
45 |
85 |
Total: |
54.4% |
56.1% |
48.55% |
Student 1 and 2 would pass but Student 3 would fail. However, this is contradictory to my prior answer that Student 3 is competent at parachute packing. This is because grades do not accurately show how a student is achieving the outcomes without additional feedback. Student 3 would benefit from Shepard’s idea of “replacement assignments and replacement tests or throwing out test scores when learning is verified in later assignments” (2006, p. 44). Student 3 has demonstrated that they can complete the task but he or she is being held back for learning at a slower rate.
Another issue is that the initial tests are marked. As Laurie Gatzky mentioned in her presentation, we should evaluate the recent work rather than averaging the entire course work because students need learning and practice time. It is not fair to evaluate students so early. Davies (2011) also states that “when students are acquiring new skills, knowledge, and understanding, they need a chance to practice” (p. 2). When I coached basketball I did not mark students at the first practice but instead I gave them feedback throughout the season. The “test” or evaluation occurred in the final few playoff games. Noskin (2013) stated that “assessments must be formative and frequent with timely feedback; a summative assessment should follow at the unit’s end” but not before then (p. 73). If students would have been marked solely on test nine, Student 3 would receive an 85 percent, Student 2 a 45 percent and Student 1 a 30 percent. However, this would not be represented on most gradebooks. I would personally give “descriptive feedback during the learning” and evaluate tests eight and nine (Davies, 2011, p. 2).
Conclusion
In the end, all three case studies highlight the tensions and inadequacies of our current grading practices. I know evaluation will be a constant stress and concern that I have as a teacher. However, I am learning the benefits of giving more feedback and fewer grades. Furthermore, I understand that students need practice time and choice, whether it is the choice of how they demonstrate their knowledge or what their assignments are worth. Giving zeros punishes students for their behaviour or attendance issues and disrupts the learning cycle. Every student deserves a second chance, especially since learning is a lifelong process. Our goal as educators should be “to create a learning culture… instead of a grading culture” (Shepard, 2006, p. 41) and in order to do this we need to make learning an intrinsic reward rather than a competition for the best mark, which is an extrinsic motivator that poorly communicates a student’s understanding of the curricular outcomes.
Resources
Bernhardt, S. A. (1992). Teaching English: Portfolio evaluation. The Clearing House, 65(6), 333-334.
Bower, Joe. (2012). Giving zeros a power trip. Edmonton Journal, pp. A.20.
Davies, A. (2011). Making classroom assessment work. (3^{rd} Ed.). Courtenay, British Columbia: Connections Publishing.
Found, Rob. (2012). Not giving zeros also skews marks. Edmonton Journal, pp. A.11.
Guskey, T. R. (2011). Stability and change in high school grades. NASSP Bulletin, 95(2), 85-98. doi:10.1177/0192636511409924
Noskin, D. P. (2013). Toward a clearer picture of assessment: One teacher’s formative approach. English Journal, 103(1), 72.
Rodgers, Bob. (2012). Why giving children zeros is a “good” idea. Airdrie City View, pp. 9.
Shepard, L. A. (2006). Creating coherent formative and summative assessment practices. Orbit, 36(2), 41.
I am very interested in the debate on giving zeros or not. Wanting to form my own solid opinion, I have read six newspaper articles from the U of R library archives:
1. “Giving zeros a power trip” by Joe Bower in the Edmonton Journal in June 2012
2. “Teacher fired for giving zeros” by Canadian Press in September 2012
3. “Not giving zeros also skews marks” by Rob Found in the Edmonton Journal in June 2012
4. “Educators defend no-zero rule; Public outcry after teacher suspended for giving zeros” by Andrea Sands in the Time-Colonist in June 2012
5. “Why giving children zeros is a “good” idea” by Bob Rodgers in the Airdrie City View in November 2012
6. “Alberta teacher kicked out of class for giving students zeros” by Andrea Sands in the Postmedia News in Jun 2012
After reading these articles, I would have to say I do not believe in giving zeros. As Joe Bower points out in “Giving zeros a power trip,” zeros are used to punish students rather than teach them the lesson. He notes that “the more you use power to control someone, the less real influence you will have on their lives.” People who get zeros are more likely to dropout and kids who are getting zeros need support rather than a critic. Bower states that “assessment is not a spreadsheet – it’s a needed conversation between teacher and student.” If we give students zeros they never get a chance to complete the work and learn the curriculum outcomes.
Three of the articles discuss an incidence where an Edmonton school teacher of 35 years’ service gave zeros to students despite the no-zero public school policy and many warnings from the principal. He was supposed to use behavioral codes but refused because he thought it “is just a way of inflating marks… [and] pushing kids through” to get better statistics (Sands, “Alberta teacher kicked out of class for giving students zeros”). At first view, it seems like he is not wrong but when we delve further into the policy we see that even though zeros are not used students are still held accountable and behavior is still noted. Furthermore, it was not this teachers’ right to change the policy or ignore it.
In the “Not giving zeros also skews marks” article, Rob Found suggests that “the no-zero policy… rewards the inability to manage time effectively, multitask, hit deadlines and develop a work ethic” because two kids could receive the same mark but one student did not do all the work. What this article fails to include is that “the no-zero approach puts the onus on the teacher to do everything possible to ensure students are learning what’s in the curriculum” (Sands, “Educators defend no-zero rule”). Students are still held accountable to do their work but their behavior is rated separately. If students do not do the main assignments in the term they cannot get a credit. Furthermore, teachers work with students to figure out why the homework is not complete. Todd Rogers, a psychologist from U of A, suggests that “a zero indicates the student knows nothing about a topic when they might actually know plenty… the mark of incomplete is more honest” (Sands, “Educators defend no-zero rule”).
“Why giving children zeros is a “good” idea,” by Bob Rogers provides a comical perspective about the flaws of giving students zeros. Bob’s words work against those of the critics who say zeros do not prepare students for the real world. Bob claims that giving zeros is an easy out because kids do not have to do the work and teachers do not have to mark/figure out the problem. Rogers compares getting zeros at school to getting zeros at the doctor’s office. He depicts a story about getting his cholesterol checked. Instead of taking care of his health concerns he skips his doctors appointment. Therefore, without taking his cholesterol test the dr. gives him a zero, meaning he has no cholesterol. However, this is far from true and even with the zero the problems are still present. Then the dr. goes on to average his cholesterol and with the zero score, Rogers cholesterol is low. The overall message is how do you mark someone without any data and just because we give a zero does not mean the problems are going to disappear.
I used to agree with the critics that this policy would not prepare kids for the real world. But learning is more than a grade. I used to think that not giving zeros meant that fifties would become the new zero but I am realizing now that instead of giving grades, we should be giving feedback. That way the learning process is continuous, students get second chances to complete work and the goal is to complete assignments not compete for marks on specific due dates. What this policy boils down to is separating behavior from learning grades. This does not mean that behavior is not accounted for. Students do not have to do the work if they get zeros, but if they are given more time and complete the work at a later date the learning process is not interrupted. I believe that the no-zero policy makes more sense and prepares kids for the real world more than getting a zero and shrugging off assignment responsibilities.