The Orlando Sentinel published an article this week about the no-zero grading policy. It appears that high schools across Central Florida are starting to incorporate the policy of giving nothing below a 50%. This has been a common practice for many middle schools for several years now.
The article in the newspaper actually said it is against state law to do this, and that the state statute says Fs should be graded as 0-59 and that an incomplete assignment should be a zero. That’s news to me as a former teacher who was strongly encouraged (pretty much forced) to never give below a 50%.
I was shocked to read a statement from an Osceola County spokesperson saying that Osceola County schools do NOT use a grading policy of F being less than 50%, especially since the official policy we were given as teachers at an Osceola County middle school was to have nothing below a 50%.
Proponents of the policy say it is unfair that a zero should range from 0-59 points when all other letter grades are a range of 10 points. I see their point.
Proponents also say that it is unfair to students to be given a zero for assignments that are not turned in, since sometimes it is due to circumstances beyond their control–such as homelessness, unstable home life, etc. I see their point.
Proponents say that a 50 is still an F, and therefore there is no harm in giving a 50 instead of a zero. And I see their point.
But I also saw every single day first-hand the lack of motivation and work ethic that can be created when a student knows they will get something for nothing. Students who turn in NOTHING. Who do not even ATTEMPT the assignment. And very smugly tell the teacher that they have to get 50%.
Time and time again, my administrator would explain to me that we needed to be sure that we were giving “Little Johnny” every opportunity to pass. He would carefully explain to me that if Little Johnny fell behind and had a bunch of zeros in the gradebook, he wouldn’t be able to recover from that and pull his grade back up if he got it together and started really trying.
Although I only taught for five short years, I met a lot of teachers during that time frame. I never met a teacher who would not have bent over backwards to help Little Johnny if he had suddenly started trying.
Based on a peer’s advice, I had a classroom policy of making students retake a test if they scored below 50% and giving them the option to retake the test if they made below 70%. After all, isn’t the goal of the lesson and the test to measure whether or not they learned the material??? So if they made less than 50% or less than 70%, then obviously they didn’t learn the material.
So the theory was if I gave them the opportunity to ask questions, study, and retake the test, they had the opportunity to improve their grade and to LEARN. At first, I went to a lot of trouble to create a different test for the 2nd round so they didn’t just memorize the first test. Turns out there was no need. I was amazed at the number of students who would take the SAME EXACT TEST multiple times and never make above 50%. Sometimes 4 or 5 times. The same test. There was no memorizing. There was no learning. There was no effort. There was no accountability. There was no responsibility.
And no matter how hard I tried, no matter how hard I worked with them, and no matter what flips I turned at the front of the class, those students had no interest in whether or not they mastered the material or whether or not they passed.
If Little Johnny did not turn in an assignment or did not answer any questions on a test, if he did not put forth any effort at all, then I gave him a zero. If at any point or time during that grading period Little Johnny decided to get his butt in gear and do the missing assignment or retake the blank test, I gave him the opportunity to do so. If at any time Little Johnny wanted to meet with me after school, before school, on breaks, etc. in order to try to understand the material better, I was there and willing. Right up until the last day possible to input grades in the system, I would give Little Johnny the chance to succeed.
But if he did nothing, if he turned in nothing, if he did not try at all……then he failed my class. He failed. He failed to learn. He failed to try. He failed to master the knowledge required by the state of Florida for that class. He failed to take any responsibility for his own part in his learning.
And I feel there is an important life lesson in that. I was told several times that I needed to be a student advocate. I thought I was. Because real life is not going to continue to hand them something for nothing. I don’t know of any jobs that allow you to do NOTHING week after week and still get paid. That allow you to completely disregard what tasks are assigned or what responsibilities are given. That allow you to put forth no effort at all.
Why is it not important to teach them responsibility, accountability, work ethic, drive, motivation, and taking part in their own success? Why is that not just as important as the names of the seven continents, the purpose of a preposition, and rate times time equals distance?
I was told that I needed to be understanding of their difficult home lives. Is that not all the more reason for the school to step in and teach skills for survival that would help them rise above and beyond the difficulties of their upbringing? Especially if the parents were unable or incapable of instilling those values at home due to multiple jobs, addictions, stresses, hard times, etc?
I think it’s completely off-base that rather than focusing on how to motivate the students to learn and teach them the necessary skills to apply themselves and succeed, we are concentrating instead on how to change the grading system to accommodate their failure so they can pass.
Let’s be clear about what we are doing when we just bump the grades up. We are telling them it’s okay. We are telling them they don’t have to do the work and they’ll still get something for it. We are telling the ones who tried their hardest and didn’t pass that their efforts do not count any more than those who did nothing and got the same grade. We are failing them in life skills rather than failing them in the gradebook. And we are not preparing them for working in the real world.
The only ones who really benefit from that policy are the schools. Schools are scrutinized any time a student fails, so they strive in any way possible to show there is no child left behind. So rather than ensuring they are learning the material and teaching them life skills to instill work ethics and accountability, the schools find it easier to just change the grades. It doesn’t mean the students learned.
If you want to grade on a scale of 0-4, fine. If you want to make 50 officially be 0 and go from there, fine. But however you set up the grade book, there should be a way to give nothing for nothing. There should be a consequence for doing nothing. There should also be a way to make it up, a way to recover by actually doing the work and putting forth the effort. And there should be something in place to teach them how to do better.
I want to be very clear that I am not advocating just failing a whole bunch of students every year and having them repeatedly fail. I am saying that there is an issue that needs to be addressed. The solution is not to change the grades and ignore the problem.
And I wish I had all the answers of how to do this. Because it is bigger than one teacher. Bigger than one school district. It is students, teachers, parents, schools, society, etc. It’s big.
But I feel deep within my heart that the more we give students something for doing nothing, the more we rob them of the sense of accomplishment and pride that can come from putting forth their best effort. The more we prevent them from reaching their true potential. The more we resign them to a life of mediocrity and living on a system that groomed them to expect handouts. And the more we hold them back later in life by not being willing to get messy in teaching them now.
I quit teaching for many reasons. A zero is one of those reasons.