“Despite evidence that grading as punishment does not work and the mathematical flaw in the use of the zero on a 100-point scale, many teachers routinely maintain this policy in the mistaken belief that it will lead to improved student performance.” ~Douglas B. Reeves*
With all of the emphasis on change in education, it makes sense to look at our grading practices for some possible answers. The use of zeroes for missing work is a good place to start.
The average of 0 and 100 is 50. On most grading scales, 50 percent is still an F. The average of 50 and 100 is 75. On most grading scales, 75 percent is a C. In both cases, the student has an F and an A, yet the final outcome of each case is strikingly different. Why?
Most teachers give zeroes for missing work. The hole created by the zero grade is larger than the hole created by any other grade designation on the most commonly used scales across the country. If a student receives multiple zeroes in any given term, he or she is likely going to want to give up. And who can blame her?
In many cases, a student who’s accumulating all those zeroes might be one of many middle schoolers who struggle with organization, and it’s not necessarily for a lack of trying. In a Psychology Today piece, Professor Nancy Darling of Oberlin College explains how the organizational demands of middle school can “outstrip” the cognitive gains of early adolescents. Having five or six teachers in five or six classes—each with books, schedules, notes and assignments that need to make it from school to “home” and back to school—is overwhelming and, for some middle schoolers, nearly impossible.
Students who have less adult support or supervision at home may have even more difficulty completing homework in a timely manner or on a consistent basis—increasing the risk of being adversely disadvantaged by the zero grade. Students living in poverty may be responsible for caring for younger siblings. In high school, they may need to work in order to help with expenses.
While hosting a Saturday homework session at my school just a few months ago, I tried brainstorming with a student’s mother about how the student might get some of her work done at home. The mother immediately cut me off with, “There are six of us in an 800-square-foot apartment. It isn’t going to happen.”
Now, imagine that my student has five recorded scores: three missing assignments, one B and one A. In many classes, her grades look as follows: 0, 0, 0, 17/20, 19/20, bringing her total grade to 36/100, a daunting F.
Now, imagine there is a way for her to prove partial completion for her three missing assignments despite not turning in the hard copies.
Remember the old spy movies where the secret agent breaks into a dark office in the middle of the night, pulls folders from a file cabinet, yanks out classified documents and hurriedly starts snapping pictures with a miniature camera? Time is ticking and the agent rushes to finish the photos, get the documents back into their proper folders and escape before he is discovered. The documents are the key. The agent knows he cannot take the originals, so he settles for pictures. Pictures offer proof.
The same is true for our students. Most cell phones now have digital cameras installed. To clarify, this is not a substitute for turning in work. As long as the evidence is captured and saved, it is a backup plan for avoiding the damaging impact of zeroes on a student’s grade. Parents can be educated and encouraged to join in, too. A cultural shift might occur. Students can begin to see their phones as tools for success rather than toys for social media and games.
As a teacher, I am willing to give up to 60 percent for digital proof of completion, not an automatic 60 percent. I can think of no good argument against this. Such grading practices advocate for students rather than working as adversaries against them.
Another solution is to make homework represent a smaller percentage of the overall grade for the class. If homework fell into a 10 to 20 percent category, for example, the impact on the course grade is less severe. Couple this with awarding partial credit based on observational assessment, and students actually stand a chance of coming back from multiple failures.
As teachers, it is our job to set kids up to succeed, not to fail. Changing some of our grading practices and homework policies is a good place to start, and our guiding question must be: “Am I grading in a way that makes sense?” There are multiple ways for students to demonstrate understanding, show proof of effort and earn partial credit; handing in a hard copy should not be the only thing that counts.
*Reeves, Douglas B. "Leading to Change / Effective Grading Practices," Educational Leadership (February 2008), 85-87.
Donohue is a middle school English and social studies teacher in Monroe, Washington. He also teaches college courses in English, public speaking and education.