Content uploaded by Douglas Reeves

Author content

All content in this area was uploaded by Douglas Reeves on Apr 25, 2020

Content may be subject to copyright.

Content uploaded by Douglas Reeves

Author content

All content in this area was uploaded by Douglas Reeves on Apr 25, 2020

Content may be subject to copyright.

0

BY DOUGLAS B. REEVES

THIS IS not a trick question. If you are using a

grading scale in which the numbers 4, 3, 2, 1,

and 0 correspond to grades of A, B, C, D, and F,

then what number is awarded to a student who

fails to turn in an assignment? If you responded

with a unanimous chorus of “zero,” then you may

have a great deal of company. There might be a

few people who are familiar with the research that

asserts that grading as punishment is an ineffective strategy,1but

many of us curmudgeons want to give the miscreants who failed

to complete our assignments the punishment that they richly

deserve. No work, no credit — end of story.

Groups as diverse as the New York State United Teachers and the Thomas Ford-

ham Foundation rally around this position.2Let us, for the sake of argument, ac-

cept the point. With the grading system described above, the failure to turn in

work would receive a zero. The four-point scale is a rational system, as the incre-

ment between each letter grade is proportionate to the increment between each

numerical grade —one point.

But the common use of the zero today is based not on a four-point scale but on

a 100-point scale. This defies logic and mathematical accuracy. On a 100-point

scale, the interval between numerical and letter grades is typically 10 points, with

the break points at 90, 80, 70, and so on. But when the grade of zero is applied

to a 100-point scale, the interval between the D and F is not 10 points but 60

points. Most state standards in mathematics require that fifth-grade students un-

DOUGLAS B. REEVES is the chairman and founder of the Center for Performance Assessment,

Boston, Mass. His most recent publications are Assessing Educational Leaders (Corwin Press, 2004)

and Accountability for Learning (Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, 2004).

The Case Against the Zero

Even those who subscribe to the “punishment” theory of grading might

want to reconsider the way they use zeros, Mr. Reeves suggests.

Missing assignment: F

324 PHI DELTA KAPPAN324 PHI DELTA KAPPAN

derstand the principles of ratios —for example, A is

to B as 4 is to 3; D is to F as 1 is to zero. Yet the per-

sistence of the zero on a 100-point scale indicates that

many people with advanced degrees, including those

with more background in mathematics than the typ-

ical teacher, have not applied the ratio standard to their

own professional practices. To insist on the use of a

zero on a 100-point scale is to assert that work that is

not turned in deserves a penalty that is many times

more severe than that assessed for work that is done

wretchedly and is worth a D. Readers were asked ear-

lier how many points would be awarded to a student

who failed to turn in work on a grading scale of 4, 3,

2, 1, 0, but I’ll bet not a single person arrived at the

answer “minus 6.” Yet that is precisely the logic that

is employed when the zero is awarded on a 100-point

scale.

There are two issues at hand. The first, and most im-

portant, is to determine the appropriate consequence

for students who fail to complete an assignment. The

most common answer is to punish these students. Evi-

dence to the contrary notwithstanding, there is an al-

most fanatical belief that punishment through grades

will motivate students. In contrast, there are at least a

few educators experimenting with the notion that the

appropriate consequence for failing to complete an as-

signment is to require the student to complete the as-

signment. That is, students lose privileges —free time

and unstructured class or study-hall time —and are

required to complete the assignment. The price of free-

dom is proficiency, and students are motivated not by

threats of failure but by the opportunity to earn greater

freedom and discretion by completing work accurately

and on time. I know my colleagues well enough to un-

derstand that this argument will not persuade many of

them. Rewards and punishments are part of the psyche

of schools, particularly at the secondary level.

But if I concede this first point, the second issue is

much more straightforward. Even if we want to pun-

ish the little miscreants who fail to complete our assign-

ments —and I admit that on more than one occasion

with both my students and my own children, my emo-

tions have run in that direction —then what is the fair,

appropriate, and mathematically accurate punishment?

However vengeful I may feel on my worst days, I’m

fairly certain that the appropriate punishment is not the

electric chair. Even if I were to engage in a typically fact-

free debate in which my personal preference for pun-

ishment were elevated above efficacy, I would never-

theless be forced to admit that giving a zero on a 100-

point scale for missing work is a mathematical inaccur-

acy.

If I were using a four-point grading system, I could

give a zero. If I am using a 100-point system, however,

then the lowest possible grade is the numerical value

of a D, minus the same interval that separates every

other grade. In the example in which the interval be-

tween grades is 10 points and the value of D is 60,

then the mathematically accurate value of an F is 50

points. This is not —contrary to popular mythology

—“giving” students 50 points; rather, it is awarding

a punishment that fits the crime. The students failed

to turn in an assignment, so they receive a failing grade.

They are not sent to a Siberian labor camp.

There is, of course, an important difference. Sen-

tences at Siberian labor camps ultimately come to an

end, while grades of zero on a 100-point scale last for-

ever. Just two or three zeros are sufficient to cause fail-

ure for an entire semester, and just a few course failures

can lead a student to drop out of high school, incurring

a lifetime of personal and social consequences.

This issue is as emotional as anything I have encoun-

tered since the phonics versus whole language debate.

Scholars regress to the persuasive tactics of professional

wrestlers (no offense intended to wrestlers —this arti-

cle will generate enough hate mail as it is), and research

and logic are subordinated to vengeance masquerading

as high standards. Because the emotional attachment to

the zero is so strong, I have given up advocating that

50 points should represent the lowest grade. What I do

think we can do to preserve some level of sanity in our

grading system is to return to a four-point system. A’s

no longer equal 100 points, but four points. If there is

a need for greater specificity, then we can choose an in-

finite number of digits to the right of the decimal point

and thus differentiate between the 3.449 and 3.448

to our heart’s content. But at the end of the day in such

a system, the F is a zero —one point below the D. It

is fair, accurate, and, some people may believe, moti-

vational. But at least the zero on a four-point scale is

not the mathematical travesty that it is when applied to

a 100-point system.

1. Thomas R. Guskey and Jane M. Bailey, Developing Grading and Re-

porting Systems for Student Learning (Thousand Oaks, Calif.: Corwin Press,

2001).

2. Clarisse Butler, “Are Students Getting a Free Ride?,” New York Teacher,

2 June 2004, available at www.nysut.org/newyorkteacher/2003-2004/

040602grading.html; and Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, “Mini-

mum Grades, Minimum Motivation,” The Education Gadfly, 3 June

2004, available at www.edexcellence.net/foundation/gadfly/issue.cfm?id=

151#1850.

K

DECEMBER 2004 325

Copyright Notice

Phi Delta Kappa International, Inc., holds copyright to this article, which

may be reproduced or otherwise used only in accordance with U.S. law

governing fair use. MULTIPLE copies, in print and electronic formats, may

not be made or distributed without express permission from Phi Delta

Kappa International, Inc. All rights reserved.

Note that photographs, artwork, advertising, and other elements to which

Phi Delta Kappa does not hold copyright may have been removed from

these pages.

Please fax permission requests to the attention of Kappan Permissions

Editor at 812/339-0018 or e-mail permission requests to

kappan@pdkintl.org.

k0412ree.pdf

Douglas B. Reeves, "The Case Against the Zero," Phi Delta Kappan,

Vol. 86, No. 4, December 2004, pp. 324-325.

File Name and Bibliographic Information