UNPACKING THE BACKPACK – What’s in a grade?

Giving zeros to students who fail to complete work seems to make sense – if no work is submitted, a teacher cannot rationally assign points. However, in a point-based grading system, a few zeros can mathematically eliminate a student from ever passing a class. In a philosophical way, such a punitive structure may not make sense in a system designed to educate and assess learning against standards, as opposed to the simple accumulation of points. The issue has been aptly summed up in a paper called The Case Against Zero.

When I heard of schools eliminating zeros from grading policies, I instinctively recoiled at the sheer audacity. How can teachers not be allowed to give zeros? However, in scrutinizing my own assessment practices, as any professional educator should routinely do, I’m taking a fresh look at assessment. Two years ago at Stevenson High School in Lincolnshire, Illinois, I participated in a professional development session about standards-based grading, and I was struck by the discrepancy between letter and numeric grading. The traditional system of assigning points and assessing grades based on percentages is at odds with the practice of converting those scores to letter grades, which are the only record on a student’s transcript. Basically, the practice used by most schools appears illogical and mathematically flawed.

Most schools use two separate grading systems which literally don’t match up and contradict each other. Assignments are generally measured by a 100-point percentage system. Using those scales, any grade below a 60% is considered failing. That means only 40% of the scale passes and grants credit. However, schools then convert number grades to a letter system of A, B, C, D, F. In that letter scale, 80% of the grades pass with credit. Thus, in a four-point standards-based system, a zero out of four is a legitimate grade to represent failure. However, in a 100-point system where the lowest passing D is a 60%, the mathematically accurate measure for an F, or failure, is 50, not zero. 

Assigning zeros in a 100-point system is actually mathematically disingenuous. It punishes failure at twice the rate of awarding success. Failing to complete work should receive a failing grade, but assigning a zero is disproportionate to achievement. For, in a quarter or semester of work, a few zeros on individual assignments can lead to failure of an entire semester, a result which inaccurately measures a student’s entire work portfolio. Consequently, failure can have residual effects such as increasing drop-out rates, which have catastrophic consequences on both personal and societal levels.

Policies regarding deadlines and late work are another problem area of assessment. During the pandemic, amidst remote learning and a literal disconnect between teachers and students, schools implemented more gracious and forgiving practices, and it was a valuable opportunity for teachers to assess what they are actually assessing. However, some teachers from elementary through high school refuse to accept late work, or assign it just half credit. That seems absurdly punitive and not in the spirit of assessing achievement. How can a teacher rationally accept quality work, yet assign it a failing grade based on submission schedule? Docking points, or refusing to give late work an “A,” seems reasonable. Failing completed work does not.

Teachers often justify punitive late work policies by emphasizing personal responsibility. Some even tell students that “in the real world” late work gets you fired, which is not really accurate. How many teachers are late to class occasionally, late grading and returning work, late updating grades in the system, late responding to a parent or student communication? How many are fired or lose pay for that? Clearly, teaching responsibility is important, though it’s not in any curriculum or state learning standards. Teachers are not truly teaching kids a lesson by failing late work, and the real world will teach those lessons soon enough. To paraphrase a student’s view: “Schools have exams and failing grades. The workplace has performance assessment and development goals.”

Ultimately, the primary question for teachers, schools, and families when talking about grades is what exactly they are assessing. Is it skills, knowledge, or compliance? Are teachers assessing learning against standards, or just compliance with assigned tasks? Should schools revisit point and letter-based grading systems? It seems unorthodox to ask, but it’s a legitimate question. Achievement of standards should be the marker, and as controversial as it sounds, critics have a valid case that assigning zeros makes zero sense. There might be a better way.