Eliminating Zeroes Affects More Than At-Risk Students

by Mr. Sheehy

A few large school districts in California, I have seen, are eliminating the use of D’s and F’s and no longer marking zeroes for missing assignments. Instead, educators at these schools are marking students’ work as incomplete and encouraging students to make up missing work or try again on assignments that resulted in low grades.

This is no surprise to anyone teaching in the year 2022. I live in a place where we drive six hours for our children to see pediatric specialists, so I figure our school district isn’t sharpening the cutting edge of trends in education; yet even I have seen plenty of this movement toward eliminating F’s and zeroes. The thought behind the push makes sense: if we’re concerned with learning over behavior, why would we fail a student who has poor behavior but high learning? Why should we not grant a diploma to a student with a 12th grader’s intellect and academic skill just because he has not done his math worksheets and reading journals?

Arguments in favor of invisible skills like work ethic arise to defend the old system, but it is clear to me that, no matter how sympathetic one might be to them, these arguments are fighting a losing battle. As long as schools are judged critically for low graduation rates, they will do anything they can to graduate more students. This is basic problem solving. When I taught remedial reading, my reading students needed to pass a standardized test to get out of the class. I quickly discovered that the easiest way to get them to pass was not to teach them reading, but to teach them how the test worked. So my priorities were: (1) teach my students how the test works and how to take it, and (2) teach my students how to read better. This was a good strategy for both my students and me, because they had to pass the test. If the test weren’t there, I would have shifted priorities; but it was there, blocking their path. So how do I help them climb over it? With schools pressured to raise graduation rates, then, it is clear that one of the quickest ways of raising graduation rates is granting credits and diplomas to students who know the material and possess the skills we’re teaching, but who don’t want to play school. Is this a cynical maneuver? I would say no; in fact, I would argue it’s the charitable and sensible move. Some people simply hate school–why would we penalize them for this?

So I’m in favor of this trick where we pass more of these students who have the skills but won’t do what we teachers ask of them. (And make no mistake, it is a trick–it is not an instructional strategy.) But I’m also highly concerned about the costs of making this trick an integral part of the system rather than a feature of an alternative path.

Telling students they can retake tests they’ve failed and not turn in work assigned to them works well in a self-paced learning environment (e.g., credit recovery programs), but it spells the end of collective education as we know it. If I as a teacher want my class to discuss George Saunders’s short story “The Tenth of December” in class on Tuesday (a collective experience), I will need them to read that story before Tuesday. When only half show up having read the story, the discussion flops. And like it or not, one of the only reasons students will read that story before Tuesday is they know I’ll give them a zero in the gradebook if they don’t. Would they read it for the sake of discussion, if I were to make the reason for the assignment clear? Some will, but most won’t: I have been teaching AP language for too many years to see any substance to that hope–the concern about a zero or a quiz keeps students accountable.

Discussions are not the only collective experience in a typical classroom. I’d guess that a majority of my colleagues’ lessons are designed to capitalize upon the collective presence of a class. And why shouldn’t they? There is a ton of theory supporting the idea (social learning theory) and we’re all here together, so why not enjoy and encourage one another? But when students are not in the same place on the academic journey, it becomes almost impossible to enjoy group projects (including labs), small group discussions, study games, or even lectures or mini-lessons. What is the point in having a journalist come and help students edit their news stories if half of them haven’t chosen a topic and written a first draft before she visits?

So if we withdraw zeroes from our system, it affects more than the students plagued by them, it affects everyone in the system.

As I mentioned, I’m not opposed to eliminating zeroes and encouraging re-do’s for D’s and F’s, but I do wonder if enough consideration has been given to how that new policy tweaks the everyday collective experiences classroom learning is built upon. I suspect the unintended consequences will be significant.