As a conservative, part of my job is to stand athwart rapid education changes yelling “is this really a good idea?” I did just that in a recent piece for the Fordham Institute, and Douglass Reeves, a rightfully-respected educational theorist whose work I criticized, has responded. The debate is joined. Should we re-apportion grading scales, even going so far as to eliminate the zero?
After reading Reeves’s response, I’m more resolute than ever in my initial conclusion: Let’s consider a 0–4 instead of an A–F scale. But I’m stiffened in my conviction that today’s fad of simply cutting off the scale halfway is the worst of all possible worlds. If we’re going to revolutionize our grading practices across the country, it should be done with forethought and decision, not haphazardly and without teacher buy-in.
Reeves and I agree on a few essential points. Like him, and as just mentioned, I’d be fine with his proposed 0–4 grading scale; I’m merely skeptical and looking for more evidence of its effectiveness. And we both agree that there needs to be consequences for unfinished work.
That being said, we disagree on what those consequences should look like. No one contests that zeros are disproportionate. They are; I simply think that this disproportionality is a good thing. There’s a big difference between shoddily finished work (a D or 60 percent) and something given no attempt (a zero). The 60 percent gap between a D and a zero reflects that difference.
Disproportionality is neither inherently unethical nor unjust. We must look at the consequences that result from different approaches to grading to decide such questions.
Proponents of the no-zero approach often gesture toward motivation. If a student receives a zero, it tanks their grade and deflates their drive in the class. If they have a chance of recovery, however, because their school doesn’t give zeroes, they’re more likely to put in the extra effort to save their grade.
Is there any evidence of this? I suspect the exact opposite. If a student doesn’t have the dead weight of a zero hanging on their grade, won’t they be less likely to pursue corrections, retakes, or extra tutoring in a last-ditch attempt to save their grade? Won’t more students just accept mediocrity rather than fighting to correct an F?
Both these framings of motivation are, of course, speculative and theoretical. We would need evidence to prove that an alternative grading system would actually improve outcomes, and here we are sorely lacking. As I mentioned in my first article, leading proponents of no-zero grading confess that there is much literature but very little evidence on this topic. In other words, there are many glorified opinion pieces suggesting that no-zero grading could help but no evidence that it actually does.
If anything, I’ve witnessed evidence that it works in reverse. One teacher wrote about her experience in a no-zero school, saying that the change “didn’t encourage students who had failed. It resulted in formerly hard-working students turning slack.” Schools that tried it before the practice became in vogue during the pandemic have since moved away from such policies for similar reasons.
I have worked in a school that opted for a behavioral penalty instead of a zero. That didn’t encourage better student completion. If anything, students felt less inclined to do work because what did a demerit mean to them? Conversely, a zero sat on their report card, a beating heart under the floorboard, reminding them every time they checked the grade book that they needed to make up work. In the end, I opted to assign zeroes again, even against my school administration’s wishes, because I found them more effective.
Which returns me to my initial conclusion. Perhaps these new grading fads are worth trying out in a handful of districts wherein researchers can keep close tabs to see if there’s any demonstrable improvement. If learning really does improve in a measurable way or school climates gets a boost, I’ll change my opinion. But scrapping our current grading practices without a viable alternative is unwise, reckless even.