An advocacy group for students from minority groups is urging the Wake County school system to ban teachers from giving zeros, but school leaders say the approach would reward kids for failing to do their work.
The Coalition of Concerned Citizens for African American Children contends that allowing zeros results in academic failure that leads to students’ dropping out and facing greater risk of involvement in crime. But instead of banning zeros, the Wake County school board is scheduled Tuesday to revise the district’s grading policy to require each school to set up a plan for helping students at risk of failing.
“If I simply say there are no zeros, I’ve dealt a cop-out,” school board member Jim Martin said in an interview Friday. “This creates an option for not doing the work.”
But what the coalition sees is a continuation of a trend that will result in more students dropping out.
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“I get to see kids up and down the street,” Calla Wright, the coalition’s president, said at a forum Thursday. “I look at them because I’ve been there. I grew up in Southeast Raleigh. What breaks my heart is that we see kids that we lost. With the zero, we’re going to continue to lose unless we make a change.”
At the heart of the issue is the question of whether traditional grading practices should to be changed. Advocates of a newer approach, called standards-based grading, argue that grades should only reflect whether students have mastered the material. One of the foremost proponents, education consultant Ken O’Connor, says students shouldn’t get zeros or have their grades reduced for late or missing work.
In the 2008-09 school year, Wake required middle school and high school administrators and some teachers to read one of O’Connor’s books, “A Repair Kit for Grading: 15 Fixes for Broken Grades.”
Several Wake schools instituted programs in which teachers were either encouraged or required not to give grades less than 50 or 60.
The argument for disallowing zeros is that it has a disastrous effect on students’ averages. At Thursday’s forum, it was noted how a 100 and a zero would leave a student with a failing average of 50.
As recently as November, school administrators were proposing making 50 the lowest grade in middle school and high school. But administrators backed down after some teachers complained the changes would reduce their flexibility and send the wrong message to students.
“If you believe in the professionalism of our faculties and their leadership, we should let them handle it,” Superintendent Jim Merrill told board members in March about allowing schools to have autonomy on grading practices.
In lieu of banning zeros, the revised grading policy before the school board says that schools will develop and put in place a plan for grade recovery for students at risk of academic failure.
A proposal for such a grade recovery plan hasn’t been presented. But Martin, the school board member and a professor at N.C. State, cited examples: dropping the lowest exam score or giving extra value to the final exam mark.
Martin said that a grade recovery plan will require schools to work with students to identify ways to help them.
Rukiya Dillahunt, a member of the coalition and a retired Wake County administrator, said Wake should have continued taking advice from O’Connor’s book.
“We start things,” she said. “We never carry them out to the fullest. This is something that’s important and really needs to be institutionalized in every school in Wake County.”
But Martin said O’Connor’s proposals were “gimmicks.”
“Not giving zeros is a gimmick,” he said. “You can’t get credit if you don’t do the work.”