Use of zeros is counterproductive in grading
Tuesday, June 1, 2010 - 4:21 pm

To the Editor:

Because I was the board member on the committee charged with studying grading and homework, I thought it would be useful to help explain provisions in the policy that seem to have been misunderstood.

First of all there is the ZAP (zeros are not permitted) issue. The point is not that zeros are not permitted; it is that zeros are not accepted. There are two main reasons why a student would receive a zero: either the student did not do the assigned work or did not understand the work. In both cases a zero should not be accepted because we have an obligation to help students learn. Students who do not do their homework should be required to do so. In the second scenario, students who get a zero because they do not understand any of the material must be re-taught. Clearly, any prior instruction has failed.

It is very student friendly to say, “We cannot let you accept a zero.”

Furthermore, the “Use of zeros defies logic and mathematical accuracy when averaging scores for final grades because extreme scores skew the average, because zeros are seldom an accurate reflection of what a student has learned or is able to do and because no studies support the use of zeros or low grades as effective punishments. Zeros and the low grades they yield more often than not cause students to withdraw from learning. When the zero is applied to a 100-point scale, the interval is not 10 points but 60 points. The use of the zero implies that the work not turned in deserves a penalty that is many times more severe than the assessed work. It is equivalent to a negative 6 on a 4-point scale. When the interval is 10 points between grades (A, B, C, D) and D is 60, then the mathematically accurate value of E (failing) should be 50 points. Recording a 50% as the lowest failing grade is mathematically accurate when using the 100-point scale.” Lane & Lippert, 2009

The use of zeros has been characterized as toxic because they are so ineffective. “When we record a 50% for student zeros in our grade books, we are not giving students something for nothing, we are adjusting the grade intervals so that any averaging we do is mathematically justified and, more importantly, that any grade we determine from the pattern of grades is a valid indicator of mastery. A zero has an undeserved and devastating influence, so much so that no matter what the student does, the grade distorts the final grade as a true indicator of mastery. Mathematically and ethically this is unacceptable.” Wormeli, 2006

According to Madgic, “The most glaring deficiency of a standard percentage approach (90-100 = A) is the presumption that a certain percentage represents a valid rating of a performance level, and that a teacher can decide on these percentage categories in advance. This presumption is certainly not true unless it (the test or assessment) has been that its results...represent a ...valid indicator of student performance levels. The problems with the traditional approach is that there is an illusion of objectivity... and fallacies of just what makes up a standard in using the percentage system.”

Kristen Olson, author of “Wounded by School: Recapturing the Joy in Learning and Standing Up to Old School Culture,” writes about educational institutions that flatten and underestimate the complexity of what is being measured in school. “Because of school's long, powerful presence in our lives and its central role in shaping what we can do with our lives, it has an inordinately powerful role in determining who we think we are.” Grades placed on assignments, then, tell students not only what student did but also who they are. To that end, caution, compassion, and insight are called for, as well as an understanding that accuracy and standardization in assessment can be an illusion. Standards based assessment, promoted by NYS Education Commissioner Steiner, may move schools closer to fairness, accuracy, and consistency in grading.

The grading system in most American schools works against those in poverty. Students with knowledge but who are grappling with the burdens imposed by poverty may be punished for being irresponsible (say for not submitting formative homework assignments). Some of these students have no quiet place to work; some must care for younger siblings while a parent is at work; some have parents who do not support academic efforts, etc. On the other end of the spectrum, students with educated and involved parents may have computers, be able to have parents assist with homework, and may end up with higher grades even if their knowledge base is lower than the aforementioned type of student. The inherent bias should be acknowledged and addressed to the extent possible.

I greatly appreciate the efforts put forth by the members of the ad hoc committee on grading and homework. They brought a wealth of information to the table. The contributions of assessment expert Dr. Nicole Catapano were invaluable. Recommended revisions to the policy from author, Ken O’Connor (who has written books and articles on grading and homework) were very helpful in crafting the policy.

Ann Carvill

Member of PCS BOE

& Grading and Homework Committee