Wednesday, May 10, 2017

The Case Against Zeros - grading gets complicated

I have given zeros to students who fail to complete work. That seems to make perfect sense - if there is no work done or submitted on an assignment, a teacher cannot rationally assign points. However, in a grading system which is entirely point-based, a few zeros can mean a student will be mathematically eliminated from ever passing a class. So, he or she will fail. And that happens all the time. That, in a theoretical or philosophical way, may not make much sense in an eduation system. The issue has been aptly summed up in a paper that has been making the rounds for a while now - it's called The Case Against Zero.

If I were using a four-point grading system, I could give a zero. If I am using a 100-point system, however, then the lowest possible grade is the numerical value of a D, minus the same interval that separates every other grade. In the example in which the interval between grades is 10 points and the value of D is 60, then the mathematically accurate value of an F is 50 points. This is not — contrary to popular mythology — “giving” students 50 points; rather, it is awarding a punishment that fits the crime. The students failed to turn in an assignment, so they receive a failing grade. They are not sent to a Siberian labor camp. There is, of course, an important difference. Sentences at Siberian labor camps ultimately come to an end, while grades of zero on a 100-point scale last forever. Just two or three zeros are sufficient to cause failure for an entire semester, and just a few course failures can lead a student to drop out of high school, incurring a lifetime of personal and social consequences.

I'll admit that when I first heard of schools eliminating zeros from the grading policy, I instinctively recoiled at the sheer audacity. How can teachers not be allowed to give zeros? However, I've been scrutinizing my own class and grading practices recently, and I've begun to develop a more open mind to the idea that we need a fresh look at assessment. However, when I participated in a school visit to Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, IL, I sat in a session about standards-based grading, and I was struck by how strongly the discrepancy between letter and numeric grading affected me. In effect, we have long operated in a grading system in which 80% of letter grades (A, B, C, D) are considered "passing" a class, but only 40% of numeric grades (60%-100%) are considered as an equal measure.

As controversial and blasphemous as it may seem to say, that literally makes no sense.

Interested in further reading? This post has links to numerous thoughtful articles.

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