Go Back to “Traditional” Grading?

You want to return to the traditional grading system. Is this what you’re wishing for?

10 Reasons to Return to the Traditional Grading System

  1. The teacher puts anything they choose into the grade. Test scores, quiz scores, homework, participation, tardies, absences, headings on the right side of the assignment, neatness, responsibility factors, citizenship, miscellaneous behaviors that are important to the teacher, MMPI scores…you name it. (With all that stuff in the mix, what does that “traditional” grade tell you about your child’s achievement?)
  2. The teacher may or may not impose penalties through the grade, such as zeros or 50% off for late/missing assignments/assessment. (And not give feedback to the student, which was the purpose of the assignment/assessment to begin with.)
  3. The teacher is free to ignore the mathematical rules of statistics (measures of central tendency) by putting zeros for missing/late assignments/assessments into grade calculations, thereby having a disproportionate negative effect on the report card grade, and possibly college admissions (This is where the lawsuits could really come from.)
  4. The teacher isn’t concerned that another teacher in the district, the building, or just down the hall, who is teaching the same subject at the same level, has different grading criteria. Your child could get an A in one class, and a C in the other class – for the same level of actual achievement. This could be due to punitive grading (zeros and 50% off) or different grade cut-offs (90%=A in one class, 94%=A in another class). There’s no consistency in the “traditional” system, and your child gets “the luck of the draw.” (And it’s really tough to get the principal to pull your child out of one class and put them in the other. Building politics play a big part in a “traditional” grading system.)
  5. The teacher may collect and give credit for homework without knowing if it was the student, parent, or friend who did the actual assignment. (Check out those busy students in the cafeteria before school starts…lots of homework copying going on there. How does that foster responsibility and character development?)
  6. Your child’s grade can get dragged down by the poorest performing student in a group work assignment. (Not the way it’s supposed to work in group learning situations, but it’s all up to the teacher in the “traditional’ grading system.)
  7. Kids don’t learn from mistakes – they get hammered for mistakes. (The learning environment is tense, conflicted, much less effective, and directs student attention to scheming about acquiring “points” rather than actual learning.)
  8. Grades can be inflated through the addition of “extra credit” for academic or non-academic factors. (Exactly how does bringing a box of Kleenex factor into a grade that’s supposed to indicate level of learning according to standards?)
  9. Grades can be severely deflated if the teacher chooses to use grading as a tool to force compliance by punishing students with zeros or other grade reductions unrelated to actual performance linked to an education standard. (The belief that the threat of punishment through grade reduction has a positive effect on student performance is wishful thinking on the part of some teachers. Can they find some evidence out there – research – that punitive grading is a force for improving student achievement? No, they cannot. There is no evidence to support punitive grading.)
  10. The acquisition of learning – both for the student and the teacher – is compromised in the “traditional” grading system by the inclusion of “practice” (formative assessment — also known as “assessment for learning”) in the report card grade. You can read about this in a report on a 1998 research meta-study by Paul Black and Dylan Wiliam titled “Inside the Black Box.” (The saddest aspect of “traditional” grading is that its advocates don’t seem to care that we are shooting ourselves in the foot by ignoring this powerful research. The teacher’s most effective tool – feedback to the student about learning – is compromised by attaching “credit” to everything a student does. That same feedback loop also gives the teacher information about the effectiveness of their instruction and may suggest to the teacher ways to improve their instruction, and your child’s opportunity to learn more effectively.)

New Jersey Teacher’s Union Endorses Thomas Guskey’s Position on the Use of Zeros in Grading

Apparently not all teacher unions are averse to rational and unbiased conversation about grading policy. Go to page 16 of the New Jersey Teacher Association’s NJEA Review magazine for October 2005 to read their cover story on whether or not teachers should use zeros in grading.

RU Stuck? Task vs. Proficiency

Jose Vilson and Brown Sugar encouraged me to reprise a conversation I might have had with a peer who was willing to listen and entertain non-traditional ideas about grading and reporting…

I recently had a discussion with a teacher in which I asserted that homework should be evaluated, but that evaluation, whether in the form of a letter or a percentage grade, should not be included in a report card grade if the purpose of the homework was to reinforce classroom learning (as in “formative assessment”).

Then the teacher asked what they should do if the student decided that, because the homework mark didn’t “count,” he or she would not turn in their homework.

In the case above, most teachers would try to control the errant student with punitive grading, the most frequent manifestation being the award of a zero for non-performance and then including the zero with percentage items that determine the report card grade. The teacher with whom I was conversing thought that zero was the only option.

I said, “No, it’s not the only option. Stick with the principle of not adding homework evaluation to report card grades (summative evaluation).”

He said, “Then I should just let them skip homework.”

“No,” I said, “let’s back up a second.”

I asked if we could agree that homework should be thoughtfully assigned by the teacher, and the purpose of the homework should be to reinforce knowledge or skills taught in the classroom, and not assigned without consideration of the fact that students actually have a life in addition to school.

Yes, we could agree on quality homework.

Next, I asked if he would want to pursue every student who didn’t do any homework assignment. He said he would, because otherwise it wasn’t fair to the other students.

“Suppose,” I asked, “that the student in question has an A in the class and doesn’t need to do the homework?”

“Well,” he said, “it just wouldn’t be fair to the other students if I let that one go.”

“Why not?” I asked.

“Well, it just wouldn’t,” he said.

“Can we talk about ‘Fair,'” I asked. “There’s two ways of looking at ‘Fair.'”

“Okay,” he said.

“First,” I said, “‘Fair’ has nothing to do with anything. With regard to that particular student’s achievement, it’s all between the state standards, that student, and you. Other students don’t figure into the equation. Remember, we’re criterion-referenced, not norm-referenced, right?”


“Second, and this is the way I prefer to think of it, ‘Fairness is not treating all students the same. Fairness is meeting each student at their level of need.’ So we consider each student, each case, one at a time, isolated from all the others.”

“Besides,” I said, “most well performing students are doing their homework anyway, and if they miss an assignment, there’s usually a pretty good reason. You’re a teacher, not a cop, so let it go.”

“If you’re concerned about the student who chooses to ignore homework because they may fail or perform poorly in the course without the practice, then you need to find a way to support them, and that takes some investigation into the reasons they are not doing the homework, as well as an enlightened administration that will provide before and after school, and lunch-time opportunities for students to have homework supervision and help.”

“Okay,” he said, “I get it. I’m a teacher not a cop. And I’m concerned with the value of what the homework produces for the student, not the process of making sure every kid does it or else. Homework is generally formative assessment, for practice, so it doesn’t go into the report card grade. If a student who doesn’t need the practice misses a homework assignment, I don’t need to sweat it, but if a student who needs the practice misses, I find a way to help him or her get it done.”

“Right,” I said. “And besides, in all the years that I’ve observed those homework policies, I’ve never seen kids try to take advantage of me. The ones who will do it on their own, do it. If it’s late, there’s usually a good reason and it comes in later. If they’re not going to do it, you have an opportunity to support them. And I’ve never seen that mythical stack of late papers on my desk at the end of a marking period.”

Winnie-the-Pooh image copyright Walt Disney Productions

Doug Reeves on Toxic Grading Practices

Dr. Reeves entertains while he enlightens. Classroom assessment is his main topic, and that includes sound grading practices. Here’s an excerpt from a conference earlier this year in Ontario.

Next, read page 20-21 (The Case Against the Zero by Doug Reeves) in Reeves on Zero, Etc. .  (Scroll waaaay down to the title.)

Oh, don’t forget to peruse pages 16-19 on grading in general!

Help Wanted: Teachers Who Read

Fifth (and last?) Part of the No Zero Saga

As I cruise the edublogosphere, including such holy sites as Teacher Magazine’s blog, and the ASCD blog, I feel frustrated when I see the discussions turn to the use of zeros in grading.

Actually, to call TM’s blog and ASCD’s blog “blogs” is probably misleading. They are more like forums where the house “blog” writer throws out a piece of meat and the discussion [dogfight] is on.

Yesterday I tried to participate in the ASCD discussion on zeros, and to save myself a few keystrokes, I referred folks to posts about zeros on this blog, RepairKit. Big mistake. The TypePad filter decided I was a spammer because I included several URLs to direct people here. Well, I can’t argue with that, I guess. It is what it is. I just wonder if the blogmeister actually did look at the post as promised in the kindly explanation that hinted I was probably a traffic seeker and therefore not welcome.

But I digress…

Back to Teachers Who Read: I have concluded that most teachers don’t do much wide reading for professional development outside of what is assigned to them on paid time. Why? I don’t know. There are a million excuses. I just know that most don’t read because they keep pushing the same tired, unsupportable reasons to use zeros to punish kids.

My point is this: I can find nothing, nothing at all, in our professional literature that supports the use of zeros in grading, especially mean averaging. But I do find a lot of writing by authors such as Marzano, Guskey, Wiggins, O’Connor, Stiggins, and a host of others, about what is wrong with using zeros.

There’s no evidence out there in our last thirty-five years of research that use of zeros can be, in the wildest stretch of the imagination, a “best practice.” So if there’s no evidence, why do teachers in overwhelming numbers use a destructive grading practice?

Because they don’t read in their field. They don’t keep up with the best professional development literature. And they cannot be considered “professionals” if they don’t keep up with progress in education. They are so sure they are right, but have no foundation for their convictions. Can you imagine if your doctor, lawyer, or accountant (folks we consider “professionals”) failed to keep up in their respective fields? They’d be inviting a malpractice suit, wouldn’t they?

Bottom line: There is nothing out there, aside from uninformed clucking, to support the use of zeros. I find that ironic, don’t you? Zero support for zeros.

No wonder we teachers need unions.

PS: I cross-posted this, without the URLs, at the ASCD “blog” .

Zero Is An “Unlike Term” or (7x+4y)/11=???

Part IV of the Zero Saga

If I had been a better math student, I could much earlier have articulated this argument against the use of zero to represent late or missing school work in the mean (or any other) average.

DansMath.com helped me clarify my thinking so I could progress from using the nearly useless phrase, “apples and oranges,” to “unlike terms.”

Earlier I mentioned a post on the Teacher Magazine blog that includes some comments that I think are demeaning to the intelligence of teaching professionals. In other words, the support of, and even highlighting, the use of zeros by teachers.

If teachers really understand basic math, it confounds me that they can put zeros in place of missing assessments and then run a mean average on the whole collection of numbers.

First, a number that represents the value of a missing assessment, i.e., zero, has no business in a collection of numbers that represents actual assessment evaluations. The zeros and the grades are “unlike terms” (you learn about this in pre-algebra, so I’d expect that teaching professionals, with college degrees, would know this) and cannot be added together! (The zeros represent work not done, and the grades represent evaluations of student output.) If you can’t add them up legitimately, how can you divide the false sum by the total number of assignments both completed and uncompleted and expect to come up with a number that represents what the student knows about the course goals?

Second, introducing zeros to a collection of assessment evaluation numbers (grades) violates the concept of the mean as a measure of central tendency. By introducing “outliers,” even if they were “like terms,” the mean is corrupted and does not represent a measure of central tendency, or in other words, a number that reflects the main body of the student’s assessment scores.

For more details, refer to a post I made sometime ago on statistical integrity.

Rationalizing about the “real world,” “teaching responsibility,” and other overt attempts at student manipulation won’t make the facts go away. Placing zeros that refer to missing work in collections of evaluative data  is invalid, illogical, and frankly, unethical.

Shift emphasis from attempted (but largely failed) control of student output to evaluation of student achievement relative to district course goals and the picture becomes clearer. In other words, switch from noting “work completed,” to evaluating and noting the achievement of learning goals.

Does that make too much sense?

Zero and Statistical Integrity

Part III of the reasons to avoid zeros in grading…

For folks who don’t or won’t buy into Doug Reeves’s arguments about the futility and just plain wrongness of putting zeros in a grade book and dumping them into a mean average, here are some words of wisdom from a statistics textbook author who apparently also had issues with at least one of his teachers.

“One of the most useful ideas in statistics is the representation of a collection of measures by a measure of central tendency, that is, a single value chosen in such a fashion as to by typical of the collection…

…Just what constitutes a typical (or average) measure will depend to a large extent on the level of measurement and the manner in which the measures are dispersed throughout the collection.” (Fundamental Research Statistics, John T. Roscoe, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Inc., New York, 1969.)

The above paragraph tells us that a grade, as in report card grade, needs to be an alpha or numeric indicator of a collection of scores (marks or grades) that is truly representative of the scores.

“[The mean] is the only one of our three [measures] that is dependent upon the value of every measure in the collection. This latter characteristic is usually a valuable one, but not always, as the mean is much affected by extreme scores… (Yes, that would be a zero. — Hugh)

…Thus, the mean would not be very typical of a student’s work if the teacher makes a practice of awarding zeros when the student is absent or other wise unproductive.” (Italics mine.) (Fundamental Research Statistics, John T. Roscoe, Holt, Rinehart, Winston, Inc., New York, 1969.)

So what’s a poor teacher to do? For starters, face up to the fact that zero is just wrong for a lot of reasons. (See The Responsibility Paradox.) Zero’s not a score, or a mark, or a grade. It can’t legitimately be included in a mean average.

There’s more to this story, but for now, consider abandoning zero altogether, and give some thought to going to median averages for that part of the grade that you feel the need to calculate.

Tip: If your gradebook mean and median averages are close, you’re in good shape. If the mean is significantly off the median, you’ve probably included the forbidden “outliers” or extreme scores in the mean, which render it invalid.


Why Zero Isn’t A Grade At All


Grades represent evaluations of learning.

A zero, given for missing or late work, does not represent an evaluation of learning.

Therefore, that zero is not a grade.

Any questions?

(So, what are those zeros doing in grade books?)

(Next up: Zero and Statistical Integrity)


Jose said…
After reading your posts about it, it only solidified a lot about what you said with regards to learning, and I like it. I still use zero, but it’s exactly for what you mentioned: a lack of evidence of learning. In any case, have a good thanksgiving, man.
November 21, 2007 7:04 PM
Hugh O’Donnell said…
And a great Thanksgiving to you and yours!You might notice that I was commenting on your blog while you were here! 😉

November 21, 2007 8:03 PM
Teacher -n- Training said…
AMEN! That’s all I have to say
November 22, 2007 6:14 AM
Margaret said…
A lack of effort to do the assignment? A lack of effort to take the test? (or make it up, if absent) I would much rather put scores in my gradebook, but some of the students sure don’t cooperate with that.
November 23, 2007 6:45 PM
The Science Goddess said…
Oddly enough, I am finding that an “I” in the gradebook is more motivating than an “F.” Kids are more worried about having to explain to parents that they didn’t do work at all than that they did it poorly.
November 24, 2007 8:11 PM
Clix said…
My concern is that a student who has actively resisted any and all attempts to be taught the material, and wouldn’t DREAM of putting forth any effort to learn it, will be quite happy to let that “I” sit there in the gradebook.It seems like an “I” would give a student disincentive to complete an assessment for material s/he doesn’t want to learn, because an “I” neither helps nor harms the average, while a low grade will almost certainly harm it.

Think about a single exam – would you only count as right or wrong the questions a student answered, and ignore those left blank?

November 25, 2007 6:47 AM

Don’t Give a Zero! Try 50, 59, or 60. (Or not.)

Tuesday, November 20, 2007


Here’s the first in a miniseries about the folly of awarding a grade of zero for late work or work not turned in.

Part 1: The Math of Zero in a Percentage Scale

I was talking to a colleague recently about how although there is no one “right” way to grade, there certainly are justifiable and unjustifiable grades.

Then I said, innocently as I could manage,”…and giving kids zeros as a penalty for late work or for work not turned in is a perfect example of unjustifiable grading.”

He immediately went on the attack. “I’ve heard that the school board is about to require us to not give zeros! That’s outrageous! No work, no grade! We have to teach kids to be responsible!”

I didn’t know which of the four positions he took to reply to first, so I chose the easiest.

“Nope,” I said, “the school board is not about to require the high school to quit giving zeros. We’re in a conversational mode, and I hope people are willing to think about standards-based grading and talk it over.”

“However,” I followed up with, “have you given any thought to the math of zero?”

“What do you mean, the math? Zero is zero. Nothing is nothing. No work, zip. End of story.”

Realizing that I had no graceful exit strategy from this conversation if my colleague proved resistant to my charm and logic, I set up a problem for him to analyze.

“Think about this,” I suggested. “Everyone is familiar with a 4.0 GPA scale, right? What if the F (a zero, right?), in a 4.0 scale had the same weight as a zero in a scale of 0-100, the percent scale we use almost universally for grading?”

“What are you getting at?” he asked.

“Just this,” I said. “In a 4.0 scale, A=4, B=3, C=2, D=1, and F=0. The difference between a D and an F is just one point. On the percentage scale, the difference between a D and a zero is 60 points. Does that seem proportionate to you?”

“No,” he said, as the math began to register. “On a 4.0 scale, if it were equivalent to a percentage scale, the F would be, what, negative 6?!”

“That’s in the ball park,” I said. “Isn’t it amazing that we teachers don’t ask these kinds of questions more often when we talk about grading?”

“Yeah,” he said thoughtfully.

“Look,” I said, “here’s a two-page article from the Phi Beta Kappan entitled   “The Case Against Zero” written by Doug Reeves, an international education consultant from in Colorado. He explains it far more eloquently than I can. Check it out.”

The following week, I asked him if he liked the article. “Man,” he said, “I am DONE with zeros!”

“Pass it on,” I said, “because there’s more…”

(Next up: Why Zero Isn’t A Grade At All)


Lisa said…
Okay, I am definitely sneaking this in to our Monday Meeting Madness discussion at school!
November 21, 2007 5:25 AM
Clix said…
What about a student who does the assignment and flubs it – say, earns a 40? Have they earned the same grade as someone who turned in complete gibberish?Secondly, could this not be resolved equally well by going to a 4.0 scale instead of percentiles? I think a lot of it is a difference in understanding what “zero” means.
November 21, 2007 5:37 AM
roller coaster teacher said…
Our district have gone DuFours and PLC on us (lame wording, but does it make sense? Rick and Becky DuFours and their professional learning communities) for the past year or so. Anyway, at one training, Mr. DuFour explained the “math of zero” just like you did here, and a massive light bulb turned on in my head.I definitely vote for switching to 4.0 grading scale/system.
November 22, 2007 5:28 AM
Hugh O’Donnell said…
Good luck, Lisa! Buy-in is essential (not 100%, but “significant”).Clix, I think you answered your own question. What’s the difference between a 40 and a genuine zero? Treat them both like Fs, which is what a 50-60 would be in the percentile scale.Fortunately, these hypothetical objections rarely pop up in real life. But no system is bullet-proof. ;)Both kids need the opportunity for remediation if they demonstrate the willingness to engage in further learning, and the inclusion of their more recent, and, we hope, higher score in their grade.RCT, glad to see you here!The DuFours are on track. Our district went with the Doug Reeves program because we were presented the opportunity to get the whole enchilada free, courtesy of our Educational Service District. 

We’ve also been heavily influenced by Stiggins on classroom assessment, and O’Connor on standards-based grading, and Marzano’s work in several areas, including the “nine categories of instructional strategies.”

November 22, 2007 10:08 AM
ms-teacher said…
Thanks for this. My assumption then is if I assign 20 points to an assignment, then the lowest score a student could receive is 10 points. This makes sense to me. However, what do you did with a student who is rarely, if ever, in class and so misses out on most of the instruction and no learning takes place?
November 23, 2007 11:23 AM
Hugh O’Donnell said…
Ms-Teacher, if you have plenty of INCs in your gradebook that were never made up, and the attendance is really poor, you have enough evidence to flunk the kid without worrying about the math. An F is an F.Your question really highlights why we shouldn’t just use numbers to assess learning. We have to make authentic judgments backed by sufficient valid and reliable evidence.Do what works for most of the kids. The exceptions to the rule will work out intuitively, i.e., with common sense.
November 23, 2007 5:44 PM
The Science Goddess said…
I think we also need to be forgiving of ourselves as professionals—and remember that we are humans evaluating other humans. Subjectivity is a fact of the matter. The percentage system gives a false sense of security that we’re being wholly objective about achievement.
November 24, 2007 8:14 PM