There has been a lot of talk in the media lately about the practice of giving high school students a zero for work that hasn’t been completed. Many people have strong opinions on both sides of this argument. I want to take a little time to explain some of what we do at Memorial Composite to fairly and accurately assess student learning.
What does a score really mean? If a student completes an assignment and earns a low mark or a score of zero, the student demonstrates minimal or no understanding of the learning outcomes being assessed. This is a huge message to the teacher – clearly something has to change. This feedback loop is essential to the teaching and learning process. The teacher gets an answer to the question
The key is to have the student complete the assignment so that the teacher can make an informed decision. The purpose of assessment is to inform educational decisions. Does the teacher need to modify teaching practice? Does the teacher need to re-teach, re-assess, or change the assessment tool? Do we need to modify the learning environment for that student? These are all big decisions that need to be made and they must be informed decisions.
If a student fails to submit an assignment and the teacher assigns the student a zero, no one (student or teacher) learns anything about that student’s level of understanding. This means no one can make an informed decision. The student needs to submit the work so we can assess his/her learning.
We plan and create assignments that accurately assess student-learning. We as teachers are working diligently to assess in a formative manner – to build a strong understanding of the students’ learning. Students who don’t complete those assignments deny themselves the opportunity to demonstrate this learning in a low-risk manner. Assigning them a zero denies them further. That goes directly against what we want to do as a learning institution.
So what do we do if a student does not complete an assignment?
1. Implore upon them how important it is to complete the assessment and set up a schedule for completion.
2. If that schedule is not met, we communicate with the parent and ask for their assistance.
3. If the problem continues, we need to work with the student and parent to determine why the student is not motivated to do the work. Is it because he/she is not engaged? Is the work too difficult for the student?
4. Then what? We continue to make it more and more difficult for the student to avoid the work. We want the student to understand that it is often easier to simply do the assignment than it is to avoid it.
All of this has to happen in a timely manner – a teacher needs to determine immediately what changes need to occur in the learning environment. The best way to do that is to give meaningful feedback to students and have students give meaningful feedback to the teacher. This cannot happen if we simply assign a zero – that’s too easy of a way out, both for the student and for the teacher.
The criticism I often hear is that not giving a student a zero doesn’t teach them about real life. Honestly, I don’t understand this criticism. Of course I understand there are consequences in life if one fails to complete required tasks. But a zero is not a consequence – it is a cop-out. Allowing a student to “take a zero” and move on makes it possible for them to get away without doing their work. Where in the “real world” does that happen?
A the end of the day we need to ask ourselves, “Do we want to teach the kid a lesson, or have them do the work”? I want them to do the work so they can learn their own lesson. I don’t want punishment, I want engagement, learning, and ultimately, student-success!