The Case Against the Zero (pdf), an article by Douglas Reeves, published in Phi Delta Kappan, has generated a great deal of discussion among teachers at our school and within our district. The main idea of the article is that the current 100 point grading scale (A, B, C, D and F) is inherently unfair and is based upon the premise of punishment. When you consider a 100 point scale, the interval between letter grades is typically 10 points. However, if a student is assigned a zero, the interval between their assigned grade and a D is 60 points. Reeves argues that, “to insist on the use of a zero on a 100-point scale is to assert that work that is not turned in deserves a penalty that is many times more severe than that assessed for work that is done wretchedly and worth a D.”
Reeves argues that the key is to determine an appropriate consequence for students who fail to complete assigned work. He makes the case that, perhaps, the appropriate consequence for students who do not turn in assignments is to require them to finish the work. This would imply a loss of social/free time (i.e. during lunch, after school, in class). He states that, “the price of freedom is proficiency, and students are motivated not by threats of failure but by the opportunity to earn greater freedom and discretion by completing work accurately and on time.” Mr. Reeves goes on to say that even if we are going to use grading “as a punishment”, it should at least be done in an equitable fashion–perhaps the implementation of a 4 point system, or establishing a 50 as the lowest possible grade on a 100 point scale.
This topic seems to be a polarizing issue–some see the rationale, others struggle with the idea that this approach would diminish student responsibility. I have two concerns related to the issue of grading scales and zeros. The first is that I frequently see students who lose hope because they have not completed assignments and are in such a hole that they are unable to recover academically. In many cases, these students become behavioral issues. For these students, there is little leverage for encouraging improvement, academically or behaviorally. Modifications to the traditional grading scale might give these students “light at the end of the tunnel.” My second concern, is that we should be reflecting upon why students are not completing their work. Are they being lazy? Do they not understand? Are the assignments meaningful/relevant? Are we assigning too much homework? A recent article in Educational Leadership provides some excellent guidance on addressing this point: Five Hallmarks of Good Homework.
The bottom line:
- What is our purpose in assigning and grading student work…what do we want to accomplish?
- What is in the best interest of students?
If you, or your school, have any experience with alternative grading systems, please share. I would be interested in hearing about how those have worked and what the response has been from teachers, parents and students.