Sunday #24: June 10, 2012 – The Dorval Debate: What Then?

To my surprise, the debate about no-zero assessment policies in Edmonton Public Schools rages on this week, with views on both sides of the issue continuing to be put forth. I suspect that will continue for some time into the future as the next meeting of the board of trustees is this Tuesday, June 12. I am writing this blog in response to some new arguments for no-zero policies I came across (and disagreed with) this week.

The first view was outlined by John Scammell in the June 6 Edmonton Journal. His view on zeros seems similar to that of Edgar Schmidt, superintendent of Edmonton Public Schools. Mr. Scammell, a high school math teacher now on secondment to the Alberta Assessment Consortium, states that “Giving a zero is equivalent to letting the student quit…. Letting students quit does not teach them responsibility or prepare them for the real world. Making them do the work does. Letting them off the hook effectively lowers the standards of accountability.”

Holding students accountable for work and allowing zeros are not mutually exclusive. A teacher can attempt to encourage the student to complete the work, but he can’t force the student to do it. If all the teacher’s attempts fail, what then? There’s no reason that a zero should be forbidden when all else fails.

To be clear, I am not advocating the idea that a teacher should see a missed assignment, give it a zero and carry on without any further follow up. As I understand it, for example, Mr. Dorval does not simply assign a zero for any missed assignment and then walk away. He shows students what their grades are with zeros and without zeros. He is available after school and during lunch hours to give students every possible opportunity, until the very last day, to complete missed work and to receive a proper grade. But if all that attention and follow up leads nowhere, Mr. Dorval should be allowed a final recourse—a grade of zero.

In listening to the anti-zero advocates, I wonder what Mr. Scammell, and others like him, believe should happen with students who, as he puts it, “consistently fail to do the assessments we ask of them.” At the end of the school year, after involving the parents and school administration in exhorting a student to complete his work as Scammell suggests, what if the student still does not submit an assignment? Should his mark be calculated only with the grades of work he completed?

Scammell says “good assessment practice dictates that the grade I assign should reflect what the student knows compared to the curriculum.” If a teacher bases a student’s grade on only the work completed and does not include missed assignments or exams, any resulting grade cannot be said to reflect what the student knows of the whole curriculum, only what the student knows of the parts of the curriculum he had assessed with completed assignments or exams. If a final grade that ignores the missed work results in a 65%, for example, that grade does not reflect what the student knows of 100% curriculum; that grade reflects what the student knows of whatever percentage of the course work he actually completed. That 65%, then, does not give an accurate picture of the student’s learning; his transcript does not have an asterisk beside it saying “grade only includes some assigned work.” Employers or universities will look at the grade and assume it means the student understands 65% of the curriculum, but in fact, how much he knows is unknown. A grade that includes zeros may not indicate the student’s knowledge completely accurately either, but the number at least represents what the teacher can verify the student knows based on what he has produced in class.

In my opinion, another view that appeared in the June 6 Journal is equally misguided. Joe Bower claims that allowing zeros is “punishing children” and using “power to control someone.” He recommends that teachers should choose “not to punish students with zeros” and believes that student assessment is “a needed conversation between student and teacher.” I say that a teacher can be caring and compassionate, have that conversation with a student and do his best to encourage the student to do the work, but ultimately the choice remains the student’s. If he fails to hold up his end of the assessment conversation, the teacher should have be able to assign a zero—not as punishment, but as an accurate reflection of what the student did, which was nothing.

To read the opinions of John Scammell and Joe Bower in full, click here.

Zeros don’t teach a lesson

Giving zeros a power trip

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