Scaling Grades for Success

The no-zero policy is a hotly debated and emotionally charged topic on the national scene. Letters to the editors and blog comments from angry citizens flare up whenever districts or schools adopt the policy. One letter to the editor in my community stated, “I’m appalled that leaders don’t punish no kids for bad work. Kid’s got be held accountable.” 
Aside from the grammar, that line may have come right out of the Hunger Games. Fifty years of brain research and decades of assessment strategies all fail to mention “punishment” as a successful motivational tool.
If you’re working in an online or blended environment, your students likely face unique barriers not faced at the traditional brick-and-mortar schools. Many students, parents, and schools are new to the virtual learning environment. Online teachers have students who are spread out across the state or country, and there is a wide variety of student support from school to school.
Using a method to assess student performance that promotes “justified punishment” might not be the route to go in today’s learning environment. The heart of a no-zero policy is not an attack on the number 0. It is, instead, a reevaluation of the weight . . . the disproportional weight . . . of failing grades. A better name for the no-zero policy would be “No Disproportional Grade Weighting Policy, “ which I’m sure is the title of someone’s master’s thesis.
For example, if your school grades on a 10-point scale, passing grades (A, B, C and D) are broken down in increments of 10 from 60 to 100, but there is a 60-point spread for an F, which gives a failing grade a weight that’s 6 times heavier than any one passing grade. And it’s a margin that is often mathematically impossible for struggling students to overcome.
Why would we stack failing grades against a struggling student? Did we intend to do that? What purpose does it serve, and how does it help the student find success?
Those are the questions at the heart of the no-zero policy.
GPA calculations are very different, though. When you calculate GPA, all grades, including failing grades, are given equal weight. There are actually five grades on a 4-point scale as A = 4 and F = 0. On a basic 4-point scale, a failing grade accounts for 20 percent of the total distribution, and each passing grade also accounts for 20 percent of the final GPA. This is a fair distribution of grades, and it’s the one that colleges use to assess student performance.
The no-zero policy does the same thing. It establishes a fair weighting of grades and does not discourage failing students from wanting to continue by making it mathematically impossible for them to pass.
The arguments against a no-zero policy generally fall into three categories: 1) it’s not punitive enough, 2) it doesn’t reflect the real world, 3) it’s confused with a no-failing policy.

Let’s take a look at the first argument: A no-zero policy is not punitive enough.

Why should a student who did no work be rewarded with the same grade that a student who tried to do the assignment but still failed?
Short answer: A 60 is not a reward. Not for the student who did not do the work, nor for the student who tried and failed.
Educators agree that grades should inform instructional decisions; document both students’ and teachers’ progress; and provide feedback to the students, parents, and teachers about what was learned and what students are able to do with that knowledge.
Moreover, a 60 indicates that the student has failed to meet expectations. In actuality, we know that anything under 80 is non-mastery, yet most classrooms move students on to “solving inequalities” even if they haven’t passed or mastered “variables and expressions.” A 0, 60, 70, really tell us the same thing. The student hasn’t mastered the content. If the next lesson builds on this one, the student isn’t ready to move forward.
Some people are intent on distinguishing between a solid F and a weak F, but the reasons for doing that tend to come down to punishment. Again, after 50 years of brain research, we know that punishment seldom gets the desired results that we want, but it does make us feel like we are in control . . . of something.
If our goal is to have students succeed, then we need to examine what practices will lead them to finding that success.

The second argument is that a no-zero policy does not prepare students for the real world.

Students who are not achieving are often dealing with the real world in many ways that we can’t imagine. A student without parents, living with strangers, working a job 5 hours after school each night, caring for an ill relative probably has an idea of how the real world works. Although, he or she might not know how school relates to the real world.
This is where as educators we have to decide if we want to exacerbate the problem by choosing to be punitive, or to ameliorate that problem and be student centered.

The third argument is that students cannot fail with a no-zero policy.

How do you hold students accountable if they can’t fail?
Keep in mind that a no-zero policy is not a “no-failing” policy. Students who do not work will indeed fail. Schools that adopt a no-zero policy still have students who fail.
The unfortunate thing with a no-zero policy is that the lowest grade is typically a 60, and many people aren’t ready for that as a base number even if they are okay with measurements like 12 inches in a foot, or 3 feet in a yard, or .31 parsecs in a lightyear . . . but when it comes to meting out punishment with student grades, they need the full 100-point metric roll out.
A 4-point scale can keep everyone happy, even for those who have a fascination with the number 0 (don’t forget that the great educator Socrates didn’t even have access to the number 0!). Its equal grade distribution will keep at-risk and under-achieving students mathematically in the game while allowing for sensible assessments.

Adam Renfro

Adam was a classroom English teacher for ten years and began teaching online in 1998. He now works for the North Carolina Virtual Public School, the 2nd largest virtual school in the nation. Adam has blogged for Getting Smart since September of 2011.

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Jerry Dyar

I really appreciate this article. It's hard to justify weighting failure so drastically that makes it almost impossible for a student to recover. I plan to share this with my colleagues.

Ray Jellison

I can solve this problem. Get the student in the right level course. Only a few students fail because they refuse to work. Many fail because we place them in courses that are too difficult for them. Testing and API scores force the schools to place students in these courses. (Please note that there are many students who are smart enough to pass more difficult classes, but for other personal reasons many students are not able to summon their smarts and apply themselves well to their studies. Did any teacher notice the high percentages of drug and alcohol use statistics during Red Ribbon Week? Our students live in those families! Some are themselves those statistics! They do not leave those problems at home when they get on the bus, so we have to have classes where they can be successful, and learn something, and not hate school, while still living in a chaotic life. [I learned something during Red Ribbon Week!])
This no-zero policy seems to miss the point. If students are failing by earning a percentage below 60%, and they are giving a good effort, than the problem is not the grading method. It is the course. The course is not the right one for the student to be successful, as in being able to achieve or approach mastery. With the way schools were assessed in California, schools felt forced to put students in Algebra 1 and higher level math courses in which the students were not in any way able to succeed. Many students failed in several ways. None the least of which was learning to hate math class!
The idea of comparing the spread of grades across 100% vs. a 4-point scale seems ridiculous. The statement, "there is a 60-point spread for an F, which gives a failing grade a weight that’s 6 times heavier than any one passing grade," implies that grades spread across the 0-100 range evenly, but they do not, in general. Students that have the prior knowledge and ability, who apply themselves, and are assessed well, earn few grades in the 0 - 60 range. The 4 point scale simply represents the grades. A 0.5 GPA means F+ or D- average. They were a long way from mastery in most of their courses.
I agree that there is usually a big difference in the understanding and skills of a student who has a 25% average and a student with a 57% average. Yet neither are passing or have shown they have acquired the skill or understanding to pass. I am not sure about the focus on zero grades. A student rarely earns a zero who tries at all, even if they are severly lost. 99.9% of the time a zero indicates the student did not turn in the assignment, or left the assessment blank.
Finally, who are we trying to fool. The reason to disallow a zero score is simply to spare a child from the utterly dismal feelings that come with total failure. I submit that the feeling of failure came before the confirming zero. The student had that feeling when they took the test and could not do any of the problems. Let's not put students in that situation. Get students in the right level course for their ability (both smarts abililty and attention ability), and they will be successful. High stakes testing and school achievement scores have been forcing students into the wrong course for their ability, when this happens the school is failing in its job. The students just gets to fail because of the system.

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