Is 50 a More Reasonable “F” Than Zero?


If you want to play political football in a school system, talk about eliminating zeros. The practice, seemingly laughable only a decade ago in education (which is notoriously resistant to change), seems to be gaining traction across the country, as summed up in this Washington Post article.

The biggest hurdle is tradition. The 100-point scale is an institution. Teachers know it, parents know it, and students know it. Teachers grew up with it, parents grew up with it, and students are growing up with it. Well, most of them are. But now, under the logical argument that “F” is a grand canyon of 59 points while A, B, C, and D are mere gulches of 10, the times they are a changin’. That’s right. Reformists believe grading is more fairly done on a 5-point scale, one which apportions ten more democratic points to each letter.

This logic is hard to dispute, but the sticking point comes with students who do no work whatsoever. As stated in the article, some students working under the new criteria have learned to “job” the system, passing a course even when they do not do some of the assignments. After all, you can survive such neglect if you are awarded 50 points vs. zero for nothing. Thus you see terms like “reasonable attempt” and “good-faith effort” as requirements for the 50.

The trouble with that is clear: What constitutes a “reasonable attempt”? And how do I know “good-faith effort” when I see it? One teacher may rule that a student made a reasonable attempt to complete an assignment while another may scoff. Here we go again–out of the frying pan and into the fire. The semantics of these terms are as fuzzy as grades themselves, wherein my “B” may be the equivalent of your “C.”

In his book Grading Smarter, Not Harder, Myron Dueck offers ways out of the dilemma, but it includes solutions not viable in every school, including Saturday in-school and lunch work sessions as solutions for incomplete work. Teachers might, nevertheless, be interested in looking at Dueck’s Late or Incomplete Assignment form, which can be found by scrolling down to Strategies for Addressing Uncompleted Work.

The other kick-around mentioned in the Washington Post article is the up-and-coming “do-over” or “retake.” Dueck addresses this in the free first chapter (see link above) in his book. You simply give fewer choices in the retake/make-up version of the test, thus making it a more difficult test. It’s only fair, he argues, because students have had more time (in the case of students out the day of the test) or a second chance (in the case of retakers) than the students who took it on the assigned day. Knowing the retake is more challenging should discourage students from “not studying so hard” because they know they have a fall-back, too.

One clever “turnabout is fair play” argument in Dueck’s chapter addresses late work. Many teachers are adamant about deducting points for late work, arguing that it merely reflects the “real world” and that students would quickly lose jobs if they did not complete work on time. Dueck says this is simply not true and uses teachers themselves as proof. He gives the example of collecting reports or data from teachers by a specific date. Getting 100% of the reports on the given day is a pipe dream (true). What about volunteer reports, such as collecting data on students who might be eligible for certain awards? Many teachers who, like their students, are “busy,” take a pass on this type of thing every time. In both cases, imagine if it went into their files on some report! OK. Don’t.

Is there a single solution to these zero and retake debates? No. Is either the old or new system completely fair? Probably not. Teachers and schools need to make decisions based on which system  is MORE fair. Also essential? That they constantly ask themselves this question: What is my primary purpose as a teacher, and how does the system I adopt help me to achieve that purpose? No, not so it is easiest for me, the teacher, but so it best serves learners who need to learn–even those who would play cat-and-mouse with any system presented to them.





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