To Zero or Not to Zero

Pipestone Flyer


Recently there has been a debate about the use, or in this issue, the not using of a zero to determine a student’s grade. As more and more research is done in education new ideas and theories have surfaced. Some of the theories are based on solid research and supported by results. Some are not, but if someone can present a case that connects with our desire to improve how we educate students they can sometimes convince us, with a proposal that may not be educationally sound.

One of the issues that has risen, as we understand more about how students learn, is the separating behavior from what a student knows. We have all seen the “rebel” student that didn’t fit into the “normal” standards. The student with the long hair, or listen to unusual music, or had tattoos had nothing to do with their ability to perform at a high level of achievement, but too often were denied an opportunity to remain in the classroom because of their individuality.

Today school systems, administrators, and teachers have become aware of the need to develop individual instruction to accommodate both the needs of our very brightest students and those who have a handicap as well as the students that are outside of either category. 

Research has made a strong case to support the belief, in educators, the need to assess a student’s knowledge not their behavior. Alberta Education uses the Principles for Fair Student Assessment Practices for Education in Canada document developed in 1993 as a bases for their report Alberta Student Assessment Study to lay down the guidelines and principles for student assessment. This document stresses that assessment must not be used to reward or punish and not assess behaviour. The document continues that No-zero polices support student-learning outcomes.

As a result many school boards began to in-service their staff with experts and spokespersons with experience with the no-zero philosophy.

One such spokesperson is Ken O’Connor a successful geography teacher from Australia and Ontario who in 1995 became a staff developer and facilitator on assessment, grading, and reporting. Over the years he has presented in 42 states, 9 provinces and 13 different countries. He has become known as the Grade Doctor and has written a number of books on his eight guidelines for grading. In 2007 he organized his ideas into fifteen fixes for broken grades and expanded his eight guidelines to eleven for standards-based reporting. Many consider him a leading expert on how to grade and report.

O’Connor states that there are three problems with giving zeros for missed work. The first was that giving a zero for missed work was to give a numerical value to something that didn’t exist.   Instead of a zero the mark should be NS for Not Submitted and if a student got to many NS’s then their mark should be I for incomplete. Trouble with that is that Alberta Education only accepts a numerical mark.

The second problem O’Connor states is wrong is that using zeros in grades is like calculating the average temperature for a week by only using only six days of data. How do you assess nothing?

O’Connor’s third concern is that too many zeros will result in a student giving up or losing hope and become a discipline problem.  He opposes giving a zero because schools are places of learning and we must always provide hope and opportunities for students to be successful in providing sufficient evidence of their knowledge and understanding of learning outcomes right up to the end of the school year.

In 38 years as a teacher and principal we saw and participated in the changes educators took towards assessment. In the beginning very little leeway was given to a student for when homework, projects, or reports were due. Teachers were open to extending due dates in special circumstances, but rarely accepted the “Dog ate my homework” excuses, even though we did see our dog eat our daughter’s science project! Interesting conversation with her teacher that day.

As time went on teachers began to adapt to the need to assess student work adopted new strategies like throwing out two or three lowest homework assignments or quizzes. Sometimes they would give a penalty for late work like minus five for each day it was late.

Education has long realized that marks are to assess knowledge and skill not behavior. But teachers also have recognized that behavior can have an affect on assessment.  The problem with a no-zero policy has the same affect as a zero policy on students. True if zeros cannot be eliminated by having work turned in late, a student may soon “give up”. However if a student realizes that a zero will have no affect on his final grade then they will have less reason to complete an assignment. 

For the past five years four Edmonton Public High Schools have used the no zero policy for grading. What has been the result? For five years in a row there has been a drop in the schools’ provincial exam average and the provincial average. At the same time there has been a bigger difference between teacher marks and provincial marks. Neither speak well for the no zero policy.

Schools throughout North America have used the no-zero policy for several years, but recently they have begun to pull away from the policy and have returned to more traditional methods of assessment where zeros do play a role. To date there is no empirical or any other evidence that a no-zero policy has been successful other than the odd anecdotal incident.

In every community where a no-zero policy has been accepted parents reaction has been “are you kidding me?”

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