When It Comes to Grading, Is ‘50' the New ‘Zero’?

By Kate Stoltzfus — July 11, 2016 3 min read
Close crop of a teacher's hands grading a stack of papers with a red marker.
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This fall, fewer students in the D.C.-metro area will have reason to fear their report cards.

Schools in Fairfax County in Virginia and Prince George’s County in Maryland will implement “no zero” policies to prevent students who put forth effort to finish their assignments from receiving grades below 50, reports the Washington Post.

The districts are two of the latest to jump on an increasing trend to rethink grading practices, including efforts that make it harder for students to fail by giving them more chances to make up tests or missing work and increased evaluation on learning over behavior and homework.

The trend stirs questions about the motives for grading in the first place: Are grades truly accurate representations of learning? Should they serve as a system of reward or punishment for students’ behavioral and academic performance? How best can they be used to support student progress?

Grading policies have been slowly shifting in the Washington, D.C. area and elsewhere, according the Washington Post. In 2010, West Potomac High School in Fairfax County stopped giving out Fs. Several years before that, Montgomery County Schools in Maryland began scoring Fs as no lower than 50 percent. Some middle schools in South Carolina implemented a no-zero policy even when students fail or cheat on an assignment.

Rick Wormeli, an educator and author, told the Post he estimates that close to 50 percent of schools nationwide are looking into changing their grading policies in some way.

For years, educators have debated the effects of a minimum-grading shelf in the classroom. Those in favor of the change believe such policies improve the drop-out rate and allow struggling students to stay motivated. They allow schools to focus on learning rather than behavior, Kevin Hickerson, president-elect of the Fairfax Education Association, told the radio station WTOP. Handing out zeros for missed assignments boils down to a disciplinary measure, one that prevents schools from effectively assessing their students’ learning, argues author Powers Thaddeus Norrell in the American School Board Journal.

Those in disagreement say such policies decrease student accountability and will hurt student college- and career-readiness; university professors will not likely be so tolerant in giving grades, and students’ future bosses will have clear performance expectations. Gina Caneva, a teacher in Chicago, spoke out strongly against no-zero policies after her school on the city’s South Side implemented one. By lowering expectations for her students, she wrote in a post for Catalyst Chicago, it gave many of them an excuse to stop working hard.

Student cheating also complicates the equation. Cindi Rigsbee, a finalist for National Teacher of the Year in 2009, was shocked when her principal suggested zeros should not be given even to dishonest students.

But after she began reassigning work and harder tests to those who cheated, she agreed with him. “I really do want grades to reflect what my students know, not what behavioral choices they make,” she wrote in an Education Week Teacher article in May 2012.

Other teachers advocate throwing out grades altogether. Mark Barnes, author of Assessment 3.0: Throw Out Your Grade Book and Inspire Learning, independently replaced traditional grades in favor of self-evaluation and reflection. And Starr Sackstein, who writes Education Week Teacher’s opinion blog Work in Progress, has documented her journey of going grades-free in the classroom over the last few years and shares how the process can work for other teachers.

“Student learning has increased and the focus of our classroom is less about end grades and more about the growth process,” she wrote in June. “Although I suspected when I started the impact that this choice would have on my students, I could have never guessed how much change would occur, not just for them, but for me.”

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.