De-Grading, Part 3: Zero

Less than Zero

I weigh myself every day so I can catch myself if I gain a pound or two. Here are my numbers for the week: 120, 121, 120, 0, 119, 0, 120. My average weight over seven days is 85.71 pounds.

Zero? How did I manage to weigh in at zero pounds on Wednesday and Friday? Well, I forgot to weigh myself on those days. No number = Zero. Right?

Giving kids a zero for missing assignments makes about as much sense. Teachers argue that if kids don’t do the work, they should get no points, which makes sense if you’re talking about money. Assuming I have no sick days left, if I don’t go to work for 2 days, I get zero dollars for those days. That’s fair.

But grades are supposed to represent skills and knowledge, not work. A student who averages 45% because he didn’t hand in a couple assignments and forgot to make up the quiz might actually know a lot. He might have A’s on all the quizzes he took, and handed in all but those two assignments. His grade doesn’t reflect what he knows. It reflects his poor organizational skills or forgetfulness.

Say I’m giving a quiz. Ralph hasn’t been keeping up with the class; he’s missed a lot of days and hasn’t mastered the material, but he’s filling in an answer for each question as well as he can. Renee is a B student, but is having a bad day. Her best friend has revealed her innermost secrets on Facebook and everybody at lunch made fun of her. She puts her head down and refuses to do the quiz. If I tell her to get her head off the desk, she will get up and walk out. Both students get an F: Ralph gets 59%, Renee gets 0%. If I average them as letter grades, both have a zero. If I average them as percentages, there is a 59% difference in their scores. What is fair?

When 0 ≠ 0

Students in my creative writing class have to turn in three short stories for the grading period. One student gets A’s on the first two, but has too much work and decides to skip the last one, thinking she’ll get a C for the quarter. Using the standard GPA scale, A = 4 points. A+A+F = C.

I give her a D. She’s upset. I explain: each story was 200 points. She earned 400 out of 600 possible points, which is 66.67%, a D.

She didn’t know there were two kinds of zeroes. Was I unfair?

And who decided that 60% was enough to pass a student? 60% of what?

The fairness of giving a grade of zero for missing work has been debated in the teaching community for several years now. The practice has been going on for so long that many teachers are resistant to changing their grading methods. For a student, several missing assignments can result in failure, no matter what grades are earned on the remaining assignments. The hole becomes too deep to dig their way out.

Some teachers use 50% as the lowest score given, but it’s hard for me to give points to a student who has turned nothing in. Dropping quiz scores can help; students just drop the missing score. But a student who misses a lot will still be hit with a lot of zeroes.

One way to make grading fairer is to average letters instead of scores. If I use the traditional scoring system where A = 4 and D = 1, there is a 25% difference between each grade. If I use percentages, there is a 10% difference between A and B, B and C, and C and D, but a 60% difference between a D and an F.  An F hurts more when you use percentages. Using letters, an F is still a zero, but it’s more proportional to other grades.

Another thing we can do is look at the things we assign grades to. Essays, tests and projects may be good ways to tell if students are mastering material, but teachers can give ‘process’ points for stages of completion. I often give a number of points just for showing me a completed first draft of an essay or story. Exercises, journals and other class activities can be given participation points.

But a grade should still represent skill and knowledge, not participation or pieces of paper handed in. Teachers have been at least partly responsible for creating an educational climate where students expect to be rewarded for their efforts, regardless of their knowledge or skill. Correcting this will take a major overhaul of the way we view education, assessment and learning.

Tomorrow: Curving Grades


2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Becky Leff
    Sep 12, 2010 @ 02:52:40

    My daughter was an honor student in high school, but the spring of sophomore year she fell behind in some of her work because she was going on a school-sponsored trip. She did not turn in an English essay and asked me to email her teacher (since she was out of the country) telling him she would get it in as soon as possible when she returned. He responded that he was lowering her grade by a letter for every day it was late, so by that time it was already a D. It was clear from his response that he was annoyed by the school-sponsored trip.

    When my daughter returned, I told her it didn’t make sense for her to spend time writing an essay that was going to earn her an F. Her teacher tried to convince her to write it anyway, saying he’d give her some points for it. He failed to realize how difficult and time-consuming it was for her to write essays. He had effectively removed any incentive to do the assignment and therefore also removed the educational value of the assignment. He also lost the respect I had had for him.

    My story isn’t so much about how to grade, but the idea of what message we give our students about grades versus learning. A grade should represent the skill and knowledge that a student has achieved in your class, but often the grade is about a zillion other things and is not very connected to learning in the students’ minds.


  2. Trackback: De-Grading, part 2: Rubrics « edaxicon

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