Why Minimum Grades are Lies

F Minus GradeAs grading reform has spread across the land, some fervent “reformers” have taken steps that–while driven by a commendable desire to give students every opportunity to succeed–fall short of that goal.  They don’t make any sense.  And that hurts the movement toward more fair and effective grading practices.

What nefarious change am I warning you about?  It’s the newly popular practice of automatically bumping zeroes to higher scores.

Now, let’s be clear.  There are LOTS of reasons to change the current letter grade system used in most American secondary schools.  Most of these stem from the primary goal of grades: communicating mastery to parents/students/educators.  When grades fail to do this clearly, they need some work.

The “zeroes conundrum” comes out of this issue.  Zeroes awarded as punishment are an obvious problem because they skew a student’s average for reasons unrelated to their mastery of the course content.  I find that most teachers see the issue with punitive zeroes when they think about it that way.  However, zeroes that are given for missing work are a different story.

Let’s start by acknowledging that, on a basic level, any zero that is averaged into a student’s grade indicates that the students understood exactly NONE of the content that was assessed.  On a purely philosophical level, it doesn’t make sense to give a zero unless this is the case.  From a practical perspective, however, teachers struggle to know what to enter in their grade book when a student doesn’t submit a graded assignment.  It seems logical to say, “If they don’t give me anything to grade, I can’t put anything in my grade book.”  But this attitude assumes that the only choices are “zero” or “another number”.

If I was asked to find the height of a horse, but the animal avoided me and my tape measure assiduously, I would not report that the horse was zero hands tall.  Rather, I would be forced to report that I did not know, and then seek a better way to complete the measurement.

In the classroom, the most logical option is to mark the assignment “Incomplete” as a placeholder for a future mark.  It is the responsibility of the teacher to assess the student.  If the student refuses to submit the preferred assessment, it is up to the teacher to choose an alternative way to assess the child.  In its simplest form, this assessment might be a score based on a conversation with the student.  By asking a few questions, a professional educator should be able to replace that Incomplete with a mark that represents the student’s actual mastery of the content.

The most common response to this idea that I get from some teachers is along the lines of “But that let’s them off the hook for completing the assignment!” or “I want to encourage work ethic.”  These are valid arguments, but they get back to the problem that a single grade can not adequately communicate mastery and work ethic simultaneously.  If the teacher’s goal is to encourage and communicate a student’s work ethic, other techniques need to be used.  These might include non-grade consequences (loss of privileges, detention, etc.) or a separate mark on the interim report or report card that gives families the information that they need to develop responsible work habits alongside student mastery.

Unfortunately, however, many districts, schools, and teachers, have decided that the best way to get rid of zeroes in grade calculation is to simply replace them with a larger number.  This might be 50%,  60%, or even 70%.  To be clear, I agree with those who bash these practices as grade inflation.  That’s exactly what this is, and it doesn’t help anyone.

Why do these misguided educators make 60 the new 0?  The most popular argument that I’ve heard is that a student who earns a zero on an assignment (or as a quarter grade), can’t recover from this failure.  Students lose the motivation to work hard and bring up their average when they find themselves in this hole.  I find this argument faulty for two reasons.

First, the idea that the range for an “F” is so much larger than the range for other letter grades is indeed unfair.  But the solution is a four- or five-point scale, not an automatic 60.  Move to a system in which students earn a “1” (for well-below grade level) up to a “5” (for above grade level) and you solve this “unfair F” issue much more rationally.

Second, giving a student a 60 (or any other unearned score) on an assignment is no better than a zero.  It does not represent his actual mastery of the course content.  It is a lie.  And, a lie on a report card betrays the fundamental purpose of these documents: to communicate a student’s level of mastery to parents, educators, and the student himself.

So, to recap:

  • Minimum scores represent false information.
  • Zeroes should be replaced with actual measures of student mastery, which can come from any valid measurement including interviewing a student or observing him.
  • Other means should be employed to encourage work completion (and other positive habits), not grade penalties.

Any questions?

2 thoughts on “Why Minimum Grades are Lies

  1. Yeah, I feel like this is really true considering how one grade can affect the overall grade greatly. Like, if I was to score 100 points on the test, it would show that I have 100 percent mastery on the topic. But then if I was to accidentally forget to do an assignment or turn it in late, but ultimately do it correct, it only makes sense to give a 100 percent for complete mastery of the topic. Points deducted from the assignment for turning it in late or forgetting to do it may force kids to develop “good work ethic” but it is not really ‘fair’ if the student understands the topic completely. Rather than subtracting points from a students grade, teachers should develop some other system of late and missing assignments.


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