Teachers Divided Over Controversial ‘No-Zero’ Grading Policy

no-zero policyA small but growing number of school districts have implemented new grading systems that ban grades of less than 50% – the so-called “no-zero” policy. It usually works like this: If a student has completed an assignment – no matter how late or poorly done – he has shown a “good faith” effort, and therefore deserves somewhere between a zero and 49. School leaders who support the policy believe zero grades can put struggling students in too deep a hole.

But what kind of message does a no-zero policy send to a student? And aren’t teachers best-positioned to decide what kinds of grades are handed out in class?

These were just a few of the questions raised at a recent school board meeting in Prince George’s County, MD. Earlier this year, members put together a proposal to revamp the grading system of the area’s high schools that included this “good faith” provision. Other noteworthy changes: educators would no longer be able to use behavior, attendance or tardiness as grading factors and they would be required to allow make-up work, regardless of the reason for the student’s absence.

Supporters of the no-zero policy argued that such a low mark on a 100-point scale doesn’t accurately measure what a student knows and pushes him or her to give up on a class mid-semester.

Theresa Mitchell Dudley, president of the Prince George’s County Educators’ Association, while praising the effort to review grading policies, called the proposal  “problematic.” Dudley told the board that it may be not be taking into account some serious issues surrounding accountability.

“How is this making students college and career ready when we are not teaching the basic skills of being timely with your work?” Dudley asked. “Our teachers are professional educators and each educator has a class system for late work. Is your name on a paper ‘good faith’?”

Creating a uniform policy is a one-size-fits-all approach that simply does not fit into every classroom and undermines our efforts to differentiate for our students’ needs” – Natalie Barnes, math teacher

It’s a concern echoed by Natalie Barnes, a math teacher at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Beltsville, MD.

“A large portion of my work as a math teacher focuses on encouraging students to take pride in their work and follow through solving challenging tasks,” Barnes explains. “A grading policy that says ‘good faith’ is only completing half of the assignment completely undermines this message.”

Barnes points out that teachers undergo years of training to help them tailor instruction to meet the needs of students. “Creating a uniform policy is a one-size-fits-all approach that simply does not fit into every classroom and undermines our efforts to differentiate for our students’ needs,” she says.

While the Prince George’s County school board will soon vote on the new proposals, no-zero grading is taking hold in other parts of the country. Earlier this year, Greenville County, South Carolina, banned zero grades in their middle school – even if students fail to turn in assignment or cheat. Instead, a student would be given a failing grade of 61. No-zero will be going into effect this fall at all public schools in Boise, Idaho.

Under new changes approved earlier this year in Fairfax County, VA., middle and high school students will be given “multiple opportunities” to complete assignments before they can be handed a zero at the end of the quarter. According to the new policy, however, teachers are “encouraged to assign a grade no lower than 50 if a “reasonable attempt” by the student is made to complete work.

Kevin Hickerson, president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association, says that, while divisions persist among educators, a consensus is forming that student behavior – tardiness, work ethic, etc. – is being weighed too heavily in grades. Placing too much emphasis on teacher’s “rules and expectations” instead of actual student knowledge, Hickerson says, is unfair.

“It shouldn’t matter when students turn in an assignment. If they’ve got the knowledge, they’ve got the knowledge. So are we measuring that or their behavior?” Ultimately, the county’s goal is to transition from a 100-point scale to a 4.0 scale, Hickerson says.

The decision to move ahead with the changes emerged after a 18-month conversation between district leaders and educators. The process, according to Hickerson, was deliberative and transparent.

This is a crucial component of any effort to fundamentally change any aspect of classroom practice, says Martha Mac Iver, a research scientist at the John Hopkins School of Education. In the new book, When School Policies Backfire (Harvard Education Press), Mac Iver examines how and why parents pushed back against a no-zero policy in Houston, Texas, that was approved in 2009.

“It shouldn’t matter when students turn in an assignment. If they’ve got the knowledge, they’ve got the knowledge” – Kevin Hickerson, Fairfax Education Association

“Attempts at reform to help struggling students backfired, at least in part, because policymakers neglected to spend more time engaging in dialogue with teachers about how to address student motivation issues and the ramifications of failure on high-stakes universally required tasks,” Mac Iver writes.

Hickerson says the implementation of the no-zero grading system will be done on a school-by-school basis, in part by collaborative learning teams charged with filling in the gaps. For example, they will set the bar on how many do-overs of an assignment a student will have to avoid a grade below 50. These teams will also determine what qualifies as a “reasonable attempt” to complete an assignment.

None of this, however, ensures a smooth transition, and educators in Fairfax, even if they are on board philosophically, have legitimate concerns about increased workload in implementing and sustaining the new system.

“It will be interesting to see how certin schools are handling the no-zero policy and find out what’s working and not working,” Hickerson says. “There’s definitely concern about the impact on students and teachers. We’ll be monitoring it very closely.”