Point of View

When it comes to Wake education, to zero or not to zero is the question

November 11, 2013 

The Wake County Public School System is considering some significant changes to its high school grading policies.

These include establishing a minimum grade of 50, under the thinking that getting a zero on an assignment may be too punitive. Other possible changes include teachers giving students an academic grade and a separate grade for behavior, late work being counted but graded with a penalty and students being permitted to retake any test, with the higher score being the one that’s counted.

The “to zero or not to zero” debate boils down to a simple issue: Do students who know they will get a zero if they neglect their work have more incentive to do the work or do they become motivationally debilitated because a zero means success no longer feels attainable? And do these students then become disengaged in school?

Psychologists interested in grading and motivation have not been silent on the issue, either in their research or theories, and sometimes their opinions clash.

For instance, much research suggests that grading of any sort can have negative effects on kids’ interest in the tested material. They substitute the extrinsic motivator of “I’m doing this because I need a good grade” for the intrinsic motivator “I like doing this stuff.” Severe grading schemes (giving zeros) may make this substitution of motives more pronounced. The problem is when the external motivator goes away and kids graduate, they will be less interested in continuing to pursue the activity.

That said, minimum grades may not be the answer because they may not improve slackers’ outcomes much. In a study in which a failing minimum first-term grade of 50 was given, only 4 percent of failing students ended up passing the course anyway. So if the purpose of a minimum grade is to motivate students, not many kids may respond with improved effort.

Also, minimum grading may be harmful to struggling but motivated students. Under minimum grading, low grades are less diagnostic. How do we tell apart a student who got a 50 but didn’t hand in the work and a student who tried hard and knows half the material? A slacker inconsistently doing work and a struggling student consistently doing work may both receive the same grade.

To capture differences between these students, Wake’s proposal suggests teachers might assign students a separate grade for behavior. Education researchers suggest that teachers have a hard time parsing ability and effort. This is a much more subjective judgment to make.

The system’s other suggested changes are simpler and lower risk. In particular, two of the proposed changes in policy may be sufficient to accomplish what the school board wants. Late work accepted but graded with a penalty, perhaps a penalty that increases with increased tardiness, is less severe and gives the teacher time to intervene.

And allowing students to retake tests communicates an important message to students: “Your mastery of this material is most important to us. Keep trying.”

Finally, any grading policy is best if it takes the classroom context into account; it may be wise to give teachers some leeway here. For example, in a journalism class a zero for any lateness may make sense because in real-world journalism missing a deadline may render a story no longer relevant. In other instances, late work may still be valuable.

At the very least, we can all agree that an essay on Hamlet (a most famous procrastinator) is better done late than never.

Hannah Moshontz is an associate in research and Harris Cooper is professor and chair in the Department of Psychology & Neuroscience at Duke University.

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