An Edmonton teacher feels so strongly about the importance of giving zeroes to students who don’t complete work, that he is putting his job on the line.  The “Hero of Zero” is 35 year veteran physics teacher, Lynden Dorval.  [Read more]  The public is behind him. The CTV news poll on the webpage carrying the story revealed that 93% of readers answered the question, “Should students who don’t complete their schoolwork be given zeros?” in the affirmative.  The reasons behind the 93% are perhaps represented in the comments.

Many felt that to not give a zero was coddling people who ought to have a good hard dose of reality.  Janet B. says, “if <sic> the prevailing attitude were education over self-esteem we’d actually have some winners joining our workforce. instead<sic> we get these snivelling<sic>, whining, self-absorbed, loathsome creatures that demand equal pay for inferior work.”  Most of the many comments assumed that to not give a zero meant giving points for work not turned in.  They thought this was absurd—and it is.  Here’s Ted: “Zero work equals Zero mark. What’s the problem? It’s so simple (almost) any idiot could figure it out.”

I don’t have all the information regarding the EPS’s no-zero policy, but I understand why we don’t give zeroes at my school. I suspect the reasons are the same.  Almost every comment on the CTV piece indicates a complete misunderstanding of the reasoning behind not giving zeroes.

Fundamentally, the no-zero policy means that students are not allowed to decide they won’t do required work.  And it means that teachers are not allowed to let children get away with deciding not to do required work.  But it’s more than that as well.

It all comes down to what the marks mean.

Do parents want the physics teacher to give a mark that tells us the percentage of assignment turned in?  It wouldn’t matter if you understood a thing, if the assignment was in you get a 100% and if you don’t turn it in you get a zero.  Only under this scheme do zeroes make sense.

This is not what marks mean and zeroes don’t make sense if you are measuring the knowledge/skills/abilities of a student in a in a specific class.  Here, the data is not the missing assignment; it is what is in the missing assignment.

The problem is that we’ve been measuring both the quantity and the quality of student work on the on the same scale.  Actually, we’ve been measuring more than just those two things.

Along with measuring knowledge/skills/abilities, marks have also included:

  • attitude (which often translates into ,
  • teacher’s-pet bonuses,
  • participation (this makes sense in some courses, but to arbitrarily reward extroverts isn’t supportable,
  • the skills and abilities of other student (remember how unfair those shared mark for “group work” were),
  • extra-credit (so we didn’t measure just what the student knows, but they get higher marks if they tell it to us more than other kids do),
  • neatness,
  • practice assignments (does it make sense to include marks for practice assignments in a final mark),
  • and of course lateness (deduction of 3% per day late) and zeroes for assignments not turned in at all.

For the mark to mean anything, all these things must be removed so that it indicates only what the student knows and what she can do at the time of the assessment.

This is not to say that turning ones work in on time (or anything else on the list) is not important, but only that it not be included in the mark.

Theoretically, zeroes can be used under the no-zero policy if it is an accurate representation of what the student knows.  But, it is highly unlikely that the student knows absolutely nothing.

The teacher is expected to assess what the student can do or what she knows.  Without data, this is impossible.  The teacher must get.  No data, no mark.  If a zero is averaged into the mark, it no longer communicates what it is supposed to communicate—it no longer measures performance.

Many of the comments scoffed at the official line that missing assignments “was a behavioural issue” rather than an academic one.  Those commenting seemed to interpret behavioural issue something which justified the missing assignments.  This isn’t the case at all.  The missing assignment is a behavioural issue.  In many cases, it is unacceptable behaviour and needs to be dealt with like all other unacceptable behaviors: like bullying, vandalism or littering.  We don’t take off marks for these behaviours.  To take marks off for late or missing assignments would amount to the same thing as deducting points for dress code violations.  These are not academic issues, but behavioural ones.

I believe this policy is more like the real world than giving zeroes.  If I’m lazy my job at the grocery store, my boss will not deduct from my wages for neglecting to stack the fruit, and then allow me to go on to try soup stacking.  He will make me do the fruit, with some additional instruction if necessary, or he will fire me!  If a student doesn’t complete the assignments I need in order to assess her learning, she receives no credit for the course.  That’s real life.  And it’s much harsher than a little old zero.

Several comments in the CTV report said that zeroes were a great motivation.  But teachers can still have those motivating conversations with students: “If you don’t do this assignment by Wednesday, you can’t receive credit for the course.  I’m going to help you finish it by keeping you in every lunch until then.”

One of the main reasons I am in favour of the no-zero policy is how it motivates students.  I have been a teacher for almost 30 years and I have never seen students more motivated that when all the things that distorted the marks were removed and student understood what the marks meant and what specifically they could do about it.