Recently in Alberta there has been a large to-do over the suspension and subsequent dismissal of high school teacher Lynden Dorval. The main issue involved in the disciplining of Dorval was his refusal to follow his school's No Zero policy for student assignments that did not get handed in. Many people are referring to Dorval as a "hero" for standing up to what they view as watered-down, permissive education.
Ken O'Connor, an internationally recognized expert on evaluation and grading wrote a good defence of No Zero policies in the Edmonton Journal in June. I want to explain and expand on some of the issues he raised.
The first thing that Dorval's supporters do not realize is that teachers following best practices do not use averages to calculate final grades. When you don't use averages, then giving a zero or not becomes irrelevant. A student who has done work to demonstrate the learning demanded by the course curriculum deserves to be recognized for that learning even if he or she has not done all the work. A student whose missed work means that he or she has not met all course expectation should not be granted the credit, even if an average of his/her marks would give a grade above 50%.
Secondly, allowing a teacher to give zeros allows both teachers and students to avoid responsibility. A student can choose to not do work and "take a zero", avoiding his/her responsibility to do school work. A teacher can give a zero to that student and avoid the responsibility that I feel a teacher should have to follow up when a student has a problem so significant that work does not get completed. I ask parents out there, if your child did not do a school assignment, would you want the teacher to give a zero and forget about it or instead follow up with the student (and maybe you too) about what the problem was and how it can be fixed?
The third point that Dorval's proponents seem to be missing is the idea that grades and marks should try to accurately reflect student learning. If a student does not produce work, assigning any mark to it actually makes no sense. It would be a little bit like a meteorologist saying "On Thursday it rained most places in the city but because of a technical problem I did not get a rainfall reading so I will treat Thursday's rainfall as zero". Assuming that a measurement should be zero because you were unable to take the measurement is going to skew your data.
Now that you have read this post (and Ken O'Connors piece as well, I hope) you should have a better understanding that No Zero policies are not about watering down education or being permissive with students. No Zero policies are about trying to provide the best educational and learning opportunities possible to our young people based on what we know right now. If you are looking for more information on current best practices in assessment and evaluation, checking out Ken O'Connors books is a great place to start.