Fraser Forum

No-zero policy: a failure of one-size-fits-all education reform

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Last week marked the one-year anniversary of the exoneration of Lynden Dorval, an Edmonton physics teacher who was suspended and then fired for giving zeroes on student assignments that were not completed.

While the school district later rescinded the policy, no zero policies still persist in other provinces. In 2010, the Ontario Ministry of Education directed all school districts to implement non-zero minimum grades for report cards. Since 2011, school districts in Newfoundland and Saskatchewan disallow teachers from giving out zeroes—effort, participation, and attendance can no longer be considered in grades.

“No-zero" advocates say zeroes discourage students from trying because such low scores may make passing the course impossible.

Canadian schools are not alone. In the United States, there’s been a trend toward no-zero policies. For instance, schools in Chicago have adopted a no-zero policy, while Fairfax county in Virginia is not far behind. Numerous other school districts, such as the Houston Independent School District, allow zeroes on homework but teachers are unable to give less than 50 per cent on report cards. In other districts, the grade cutoff is 70 per cent.

A school district in upstate California has adopted an equal interval grading scheme, where 80 per cent and up merits an A, and only scores below 20 per cent merit an F. Combined with its no-zero policy for missing work, observers note the new grading scheme may end up giving a student who attempted an assignment and performed poorly a lower grade than one that did not try at all.

No-zero policies raise a number of concerns. To begin with, while some students will benefit from the grace of getting a pass with no work, in practice no-zero policies effectively serve to "tax" work by students on the margin. After all, if some effort and no effort produce the same grade, some students will be incentivized to give little effort. Similarly, no-zero policies may deprive students of the satisfaction of hard work.

Consider a student with a standing of 32 per cent but whose grade has been bumped up to 50 per cent on their report card. Through renewed dedication and hard work, suppose the student manages to score 52 per cent on the next evaluation. The student sees a two percentage point return to their labour—not 20. Finally, students are likely to develop an increased sense of entitlement. Kids are quick to learn that they can pass with little to no effort. This entitlement likely contributes to the current student movements on college campuses.

This hyper-concern over student grades is in part driven by incentives created under centralized education reforms, such as No Child Left Behind. Under this federal program, funding is more tightly connected with student performance, which in practice has caused schools to inflate grades or pass under-performing students. And schools aren't stopping at no-zero policies. Many schools also have rules to allow students to retake their exams as many times as needed. Teachers are directed to avoid penalizing late work. Even students who cheat may no longer get zeroes, out of an ostensible desire to "reward the knowledge not the behaviour." Many schools now give cheating students opportunities to retake tests until they pass.

While the solution to improving school performance is complex, one-size-fits-all education policies have promised much but haven't delivered. In the United States, despite a fivefold increase in federal education spending since 1970, student achievement has been flat or declined.

Though this question has yet to be empirically tested, economic theory and teacher reaction suggests no-zero policies are just an extension of bad policy—bad ideas that school districts can't get out of.

To let good ideas develop, become imitated and spread, schools in the United States and Canada need the flexibility to address the needs of their locality and the freedom to innovate. In doing so, teachers will gain the discretion necessary to reach kids where they're at, such as determining whether incomplete assignments reflect satisfactory or unsatisfactory performance, all the while remaining accountable to taxpayers and parents.