Schools back 'no zero' grading policy
By Phyllis Moore
Published in News on October 7, 2008 1:46 PM
AR 3400, Wayne County Public Schools' "no zero" policy, is a stop-gap measure to offset the dropout rate,officials say.
At a Monday afternoon meeting of the Board of Education's curriculum and instruction committee, principals and school officials spent more than an hour debating the merits of the grading practice.
Originally two separate policies, 3400 and 3410 were adopted in 1999 then revised in June 2008. They were subsequently rescinded and combined into AR 3400 -- an "administration regulation" which "strongly encourages grading practices that are motivational to students." It is currently in draft form and has not been officially
The regulation states that "zeros should not be issued to students" but rather the teacher would provide "multiple opportunities for students to master learning objectives." In semester courses or year-long courses, a minimum grade of 60 could be issued during each grading period for students who did not achieve a passing grade, but who made a reasonable effort.
One addition has been made -- "A minimum grade of 50 will be issued for a student who did not make a reasonable effort."
The policy has drawn mixed responses, especially from teachers and the public.
Dr. Sandra McCullen, associate superintendent for curriculum and instruction, said the debate is not limited to Wayne County.
"There's a state and national discussion about this right now," she said.
Two local principals spoke about its merits.
David Lewis, principal of Rosewood High School, said "how disproportionate a zero can be in a child's grade. It has a negative effect on his average."
"The discussion is, once you get to a certain point, does it really matter how badly a student failed an assignment?" he said. "Shouldn't you do your work to get them to a mastery level, rather than the punitive weight of a zero?"
Mario Re, principal at Norwayne Middle School, said the main problem lies in the grading scale.
"We want an accurate picture of the scale of the kids' grades," he said. "A grade really is to see mastery ... an indicator of what a student knows and is able to do."
The range of failure is vast, Re said.
"An F's an F -- a zero is an F, a 50 is an F," he explained.
And once grades are averaged togther, he said, a zero can put a student so far behind, he will never catch up.
"If you give him a zero early in the nine weeks, you have buried that kid," he said. "We don't want to bury these kids. We hope we're turning around some kids (and) if they improve, they still have a chance to pass the course."
Say the student gets five 100s, Re said, only to lapse and get one zero. Suddenly, the average goes to 83 percent, or a C+. By contrast, however, if that same child with five 100s was given a 60 instead of a zero, his average would be 93 percent, or a B+.
"To me, this is more of a true picture of that kids' grades," he said.
It is not about giving credit for having done nothing, however, Re explained.
"The student still gets an F. We're simply equalizing the influence of each grade in the overall grade and responding in a way that leads to learning," he said. "You're hoping you are giving this child some recovery room."
Rather than giving failing grades as punishment, teachers have the power to give a grade based on effort.
If the goal is to get students to master content, the policy will essentially give the child a chance to turn things around, Re said.
"We don't think there's anything wrong with a zero. The whole problem is the scale," he said. "If it was 0-50, we'd be all set."
Teachers can also "leave a blank spot as a place holder" until the assignment is completed or an actual grade earned, Lewis said.
"The idea is that we're going to do everything we can to get every assignment we can," he said. "What we tried to do is look at what we believe was the intent of the no zero policy when implemented at the high school level."
Part of the original problem came from the state's computerized measuring system, N.C. Wise, where teachers input data such as grades and attendance online. It is unable to recognize an incomplete, immediately translating that as a zero.
Robert Yancey, lead teacher for N.C. Wise accountability, said that since the state's system is unflinching, a common sense approach could be taken.
"If a child does not turn in an assignment, leave it blank," he said. "It doesn't negatively impact the average of the child. As the semester goes along, when you do get a grade, you can insert it into that spot."
Giving a numerical grade, however -- 60 if they're showing reasonable effort, 50 if they're not -- makes it simpler than just leaving missing grades blank, he added.
With school districts under the gun to improve graduation rates, the move is viewed as a way to encourage students to stay the course.
School board member George Moye said he has no problem with the policy.
"I think it's right on time," he said.
It's certainly preferable to flunking a child in the first nine weeks, putting him so far behind that you have "lost that child," he said.
Board member Rick Pridgen saw it differently.
"I'm against this policy and was against it when we talked about it before," he said. "If you're asking for a full approval, it will have to go before the full board."
Pridgen said he had spoken with several teachers in recent weeks who had already experienced problems.
"(Students) know they're not going to get zeros anyway, so there's going to be some students who will take advantage of that situation," he said.
He could not argue with its role with students willing to do the work, but took issue with its effectiveness at a time where rigor is stressed and students are supposedly being prepped for college.
"As a parent, I would like to know exactly where my child is at -- if they get a 60 and they're really sitting at 27, I would want to know where I can help improve my child," he said.
"I don't see it as giving the child something for doing nothing," said Dr. Craig McFadden, assistant superintendent for accountability, favoring "the idea of letting that 50 be the bottom of the scale."
"I just think it encourages students who are lazy to get lazier," Pridgen replied.
Lewis said in his experience, the vast majority of students took advantage of the opportunity to improve.
"Just a few are habitually late with assignments or habitually don't turn in assignments," he said.
It all comes back to the dropout problem, said board member Shirley Sims, chairperson of the curriculum and instruction committee.
"I'm looking at that population more than any other population," she said. "A 50 may do something -- give hope -- but if it's a zero, there's no hope.
"I'm just looking at it from trying to save children, trying to do anything we can that would not be detrimental. ... This is not to water down what we're doing. I'm more interested in it helping those at risk of not graduating."
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