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The folly of 'no-zero' policies in schools

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High school physics teacher Lynden Dorval probably never expected to become a celebrity. But with his decision to defy his principal's no-zeros edict, the Edmontonian ignited a nationwide debate about grading practices in schools. Under no-zero grading policies, teachers are forbidden from assigning grades of zero to students for assignments they do not submit.

Public response on this issue has been overwhelmingly on Dorval's side. Students rallied to his defense, teachers spoke out in support of his position, and newspaper pages were filled with letters attacking the no-zero policy. Even an online poll conducted by the Edmonton Journal reported more than 97 per cent of the 12,486 respondents opposed the no-zero policy.

Largely in response to public pressure, Edmonton Public School Board trustees voted at their June meeting to conduct an extensive review of their assessment practices. The review is scheduled to commence this month.

Hopefully, trustees will take the time to review the research on no-zero policies. If they do, they'll find the evidence does not support the overblown claims made by no-zero supporters.

One of the best-known no-zero advocates is Ken O'Connor, an assessment consultant in Ontario. In his book How to Grade for Learning, O'Connor claims zeros cause students to withdraw from learning. However, the only source he cites to back up this claim is an article in the NASSP Bulletin by Thomas Guskey, an education professor at the University of Kentucky.

Guskey does make the statement attributed to him by O'Connor but cites only one research study to support this claim -- a 1992 article in the British Columbia Journal of Special Education by Deborah Selby and Sharon Murphy. In it, Selby and Murphy describe the experiences of six learning-disabled students in mainstream classrooms. These six students had negative experiences with letter grades and blamed themselves for their poor marks.

It should be obvious that it is absurd to generalize the experiences of six learning-disabled students to the rest of the student population. And yet this article is regularly cited by Guskey when he makes the claim that grades of zero have a negative impact on students. Even a more recent article by Guskey that appeared in the November 2011 edition of Educational Leadership contains the same claim, with Selby and Murphy's article again providing the only research support.

Clearly, the claim that research evidence strongly supports no-zero policies is flawed. No-zero proponents cannot hide behind the research argument since the evidence is quite weak.

In addition, there are many reasons why school administrators should avoid no-zero policies. One is that they inevitably bring controversy with them, something acknowledged by even their strongest proponents. If a school chooses to use a no-zero policy, it can expect controversy will likely overshadow other more important initiatives. School administrators need to ask themselves whether a no-zero policy is worth the opposition they are certain to face.

No-zero policies also unreasonably interfere with the professional discretion of teachers to determine grades. Teachers know their students and realize that it is unrealistic to expect the same strategies to work with every student. All a no-zero policy does is take away one of the consequences teachers can use for students who fail to submit their work.

Students who submit their work on time could end up receiving worse grades than those who submit only some assignments. Since no-zero policies prohibit teachers from giving a zero for incomplete work, a student who hands in an assignment and receives a mark of 30 per cent would have been better off not to submit it. Students will figure out it is in their best interest to pick and choose the assignments they submit.

Finally, no-zero policies fail to prepare students for life after high school. Employees don't get paid for doing nothing and universities don't grant credit to students who choose not to hand in their assignments. A pilot who never flies a plane, an electrician who never wires a house, and a journalist who never hands in a story can all expect to get paid nothing. Employers aren't going to accommodate employees who can't be bothered to submit their work. Teachers need to prepare their students for this reality.

Let's hope trustees in Edmonton and across Canada recognize the folly of no-zero policies.

Michael Zwaagstra is a research fellow with the Frontier Centre for Public Policy (fcpp.org), a public high school teacher, and co-author of the book, What's Wrong With Our Schools and How We Can Fix Them.

-- Troy Media

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition September 4, 2012 A10

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