Monday, June 11, 2012

Zeros? No Zeros? The Danger of Dichotomies


Many of the schools and systems with whom Sandra Herbst and I are currently working are engaged in thoughtful and involved conversations that focus on the use of zeros, deducting marks (or grades)[1]for late assignments, or some other kind of response to students who do not provide the kind of evidence of learning that has been requested. At times, this dialogue can become emotional and even divisive. We are reminded of Sir Michael Barber’s statement[2](2011 keynote), that as educators, we often find ourselves “on the road…paved with false dichotomies”. That is, educators discuss issues from the mindset of ‘either all or nothing.’ For example:
·       Phonics: Some say phonics is the only basis of a good reading program while others say phonics is of no use at all.
·       Standards: Some say all students must achieve universal high standards while others say the standards depend entirely on the student.
·       Evaluating Student Work: Some would say when work is not handed in on time, deductions are given and, if necessary, a zero is assigned while others would say you should never deduct marks and you can never assign a zero.
Yet, in the midst of these often-heated debates, there is a place for a measured, reasonable response. 

It is sometimes helpful to have an example that helps us better understand the situation. Some people say that in the ‘real world’ if things are late, there are consequences. That is indeed true. So let us take an example from educators’ ‘real world’ of employment. What if a teacher does not complete the report cards for his classes by the specified date? Is the first response to fire that teacher? No. Is the first response to deduct pay? No. What will happen? Likely, the principal will have a conversation with him to determine why the report cards are not yet completed and to plan for next steps. This might mean bringing in a substitute so that they can be completed during the next school day. It might mean that a district consultant is brought in to provide support and guidance, or it might even mean that the principal spends the next two evenings sitting alongside that teacher to ensure that they are done. The consequence for not doing report cards is doing report cards.

Teachers work with students to help them understand that they are responsible and that part of their role is to provide evidence of their learning to the teacher. . Additionally, students need to understand that there are consequences for submitting their work late. Still, the natural consequence of not handing in assignments should be to hand them in. Some people may think having to actually hand the work in is not a consequence or perhaps not enough of a consequence. We would agree, but it is the first step towards addressing the issue. As Schimmer (2012) writes, “Assigning a zero to something that has not been seen compromises the accuracy of the grade…”[3]

If the first reaction – the default stance - to assignments not being handed in is to begin to deduct marks or grades, then very quickly students no longer see a reason to submit work on time or, perhaps, at all. Much has been written about the extraordinary weight one or two zeros assigned to a student’s work can have on the term or final grade. Recovering from the mathematical impact of a zero could require, in many situations, near perfect future scores. When we deduct marks or grades and when we assign zeros, the mark or grade that results no longer speaks to the quality of the work which is the point of marks or grades in relation to the curriculum expectations.

We want students to be engaged. We want students to be learning. We want students to be successful. We also want teachers to use their informed professional judgment regarding achievement. What can be done? There are many facets to consider. Here are four ways teachers, schools, and systems are addressing this important issue.

One: If students do not hand in work then evidence of learning is not available to the teacher. Without evidence of learning (or lack of learning), a teacher’s ability to make a professional judgment is seriously impaired. If there is not enough evidence of learning, a grade cannot be assigned. The next measured response is to use one of a variety of strategies to support students as they work to ensure that they provide enough evidence of learning.

Two: At the end of the term, when report card grades are required, teachers need to be very careful they are not putting themselves at professional risk. Report cards are legal documents. They report what students have learned and achieved in relation to the learning outcomes and standards for the subject. If the records kept by the teacher show little or no evidence of learning in relation to those outcomes or standards, then the student grade must reflect that unknowing. Therefore, some schools and systems use NE, which means Not Enough Evidence and students have a certain length of time to submit the needed evidence or complete alternative tasks that do give teachers enough evidence. If evidence of learning does not become available, then a grade is not assigned for the course – there is no credit recorded.

Three: Evidence of learning is important in terms of providing information about the ongoing learning so teaching can be adjusted and in terms of providing evidence for evaluation of learning and achievement. Many teachers deliberately explain to students that there is little or no choice about submitting evidence of learning (student assignments and other work) if a student is to achieve success in the course. Then, in order to assist students who need additional support, teachers, schools, and systems put into place a variety of processes to serve as an intervention if assignments are not submitted, including:
·       Setting up a student contract to support the learning.
·       Referring students to additional supports such as a learning centre or tutorials.
·       Chunking major assignments into smaller pieces that can be submitted in stages.
·       Giving students a window of time (e.g., a week) within which the work must be submitted.
·       Providing an alternate assignment that, while still meeting the intended outcomes of the original assignment, better reflects the student’s interests and strengths.
This list is illustrative and not exhaustive. Provincial policy statements across Canada, like Growing Success (Ontario, 2010) and Academic Responsibility, Honesty, and Promotion/Retention (Manitoba, 2010) offer additional strategies and processes.

Four: These documents, and others, also indicate that, if the assignment is still not submitted after attempts have been made in these and other ways, deducting marks and/or assigning a zero may be necessary. To mitigate the impact of a zero, teachers might choose to give it less weight or decide not to use a zero score in the grade calculation. We agree that this is also a potential response.

As you come to a collegial decision in regards to the assigning of zeroes and the deduction of marks, we remind you that the final grade decision or calculation must reflect the informed professional judgment of the teacher and accurately represent a student’s actual achievement.



Note: This blog is an excerpt from an upcoming book titled, A Fresh Look at Grading and Reporting by Anne Davies and Sandra Herbst.





[1] In some jurisdictions the term ‘marks’ is used to refer to the evaluations placed on student assignments. In other places the term ‘grades’ is used. Sometimes these two terms are used interchangeably. In this text, to assist the reader, we are using both 'marks' and 'grades.'
[2] Sir Michael Barber’s statement from his December 2011 keynote at the Learning Forward Annual Conference, Anaheim, California 
[3] Tom Schimmer (2012). Ten Things That Matter from Assessment to Grading. Pearson Canada: Toronto, Ontario.

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