New school policy banishes zeros from students’ grades

WHAT WILL WE LEARN? Liesel Watkins speaks with her newest student, Anna Owen, and her mother during open house. One of the first questions most students ask their teachers is how they will be graded.

Michael Fanning

WHAT WILL WE LEARN? Liesel Watkins speaks with her newest student, Anna Owen, and her mother during open house. One of the first questions most students ask their teachers is how they will be graded.

Regan Tebrock, Staff Writer

Over the past couple of years, Sevier Middle has quietly introduced a no-zeros policy. This no-zeros policy means that a student cannot make a grade of zero on assignments. When a student makes a grade less than 60, for example when a person receives a 20, the teacher puts the grade in his or her gradebook as a 60.

Some educators believe that getting a zero discourages students to try harder and is difficult to recover from. It also causes kids who are obsessed with ratings to feel discouraged and upset.

“Just try to find someone who isn’t heavily discouraged by being judged to be worth zero,” Luke Holt, an 8th grade teacher, said. “I don’t think the restriction of the score 0 is the issue. I think the fact that our 0-100 grading scale has 70 ways students can fail and only 31 ways they can pass is the bigger issue.”

“Not giving zeros is an effort to make grading more equitable,” middle school principal Holly Flora said. “The goal of our work with grading is to support students in giving them the most accurate feedback possible.”

Schools have historically used averages to determine student grades. According to Flora, using an average with a 100 point scale typically means that students have 30 points out of 100 to pass, but 70 to fail.

“Zeros can quickly destroy student averages, leaving them struggling to pull their grades up,” she said. Once they reach a critical point where it’s no longer possible to pull the grade up, students may stop caring about the class altogether – and they may actually do even less work due to those failing grades.”

Not everybody believes this policy is a good idea. For some, it gives students the mindset that they might as well not do the assignment than do it and get a bad grade. After call, they are guaranteed a 60.

“A student who puts their full effort should be rewarded, but this policy punishes them,” Sloane Burkly, an 8th grade student, said. “I believe the ‘no zeros’ policy is unfair to many students. It gives students an idea that not doing an assignment all together is better than doing the work and getting a very low grade.”

Emma Anthony, another eighth grade student, agreed.

“I think if they see a whole bunch of zeros in the grade book, it would give them some motivation,” Emma Anthony, another eighth grade student, said. “But if they see the 60s, I think they think it’s ‘good enough’.”

Some people worry that this policy does not prepare students for the “real world”, but if a student makes a bad grade, a teacher will reteach the subject until the student knows it.

“If we were worried about the ‘real world’ preparation, we wouldn’t advance students to the next grade if they are not prepared,” Holt said. “I can’t get a job I’m unqualified for, so therefore I wouldn’t be evaluated for my performance in that job. If a student gives up and is advanced to the next grade without learning the required skills, they will struggle to succeed. If we’re going to matriculate failing students to the next grade, we need to be compassionate about how we treat them.”

Flora and Holt, along with many other teachers, want to move toward a four-point scale.

“I would like to see us use clear performance measures, like rubrics, that equate to a four pint scale that would clearly demonstrate if a student is advanced, proficiency, nearing proficiency, or below proficiency,” Flora said. “I think that using a scale like this would be more effective in directing a focus on a ‘grade’.”

The fact that a student can learn almost 70 percent of the material and still fail is central to this issue.

“A zero is only unfair relative to the range,” Holt said. “A zero is something that can be overcome on a 0-4 scale, but a zero absolutely destroys overall averages on a 0-100 scale.”

A potential four-point scale would include 4 meaning “Above Proficiency”, 3 meaning “Proficient”, 2 meaning “Nearing Proficiency” and 1 meaning “Below Proficiency”.

Not everybody agrees that this is a good thing.

“I don’t think it is okay to change the student’s grade from a 20 to a 60,” Burkey said. “I believe that the student should receive the grade that he or she earned.”

Anthony agrees.

“If a student doesn’t do the work, they shouldn’t get any credit from it,” Anthony said.

To Flora, learning is the goal, not a grade.

“Our focus is on feedback,” Flora said. “We are always aiming to provide more feedback to students and ensure that a child’s ‘grade’ accurately reflects what a student knows.”

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