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Can a ‘No-Zero’ Approach to Schoolwork Make the Grade in New Jersey?

No zeros should be a no-brainer: but some teachers, parents, and even students would rather stick to traditional grading policies

high school students

Innovative grading policies making it harder to fail are a growing trend in New Jersey school districts. They include things like optional homework assignments, second-chance retake options for tests, and something called the “no zero” policy, in which the lowest grade a student can achieve for showing up and executing a “reasonable attempt” on an assignment — excluding standardized tests — is 50 percent (or 30 or 20 or another number depending on the school).

This is all part of a recent but heavily-researched nationwide movement asserting that traditional grading practices on a 0 to 100 scale aren’t working effectively for students. Versions have been tried in both urban and suburban school systems across the country including in Pennsylvania, Virginia Arizona, Michigan, and North Carolina and have achieved varying levels of success. In 2010, the Mount Olive school district announced a controversial “no D” policy, eliminating the grade completely.

Reward and punishment?

The crux of the problem addressed by these new practices, sometimes referred to as Common Grading Standards, is determining what grades are meant to do. Are they intended to punish students who do not complete their assignments and reward those who do? Or are grades supposed to measure proficiency and effort on the part of the student?

With a growing number of New Jersey districts adopting no-zero policies in particular, educators and administrators appear to be moving away from the punishment theory and towards a model geared toward encouraging students to learn more. But like all education reform practices, altering grading has created tension between teachers, administrators, parents, and students.

The sticking point in the traditional grade scale is that students who receive a couple of failing grades in a marking period can find it virtually impossible to pass the course, while students who start with a 50 on an assignment find that a passing average is well within reach with a little effort.

The no-zero policy works like this: Imagine two students. Student “A” scores 85, 92, 93, 90 on her assessments but then has a rough day and scores a 0 on her last exam. Meanwhile, student “B” who scores 85, 92, 93, 90 on her exams (same as student “A”) did marginally better on her last exam and scored a 61. Both the 0 and the 61 are technically failing grades, but student “B” comes away with an 84 course average, a B, while student “A” ends with a 72, a C. If the school implemented a no-zero policy starting at 50, the lowest grade student “A” would have achieved on her test would have been a 50 bringing her average to an 82 — a solid B. Supporters of the no-zero policy say this can save students’ overall GPAs and better represent their efforts in the class. Student “A” never scored less than a B on any of her assignments up until that 0, so ending the course with a C overall, advocates say, doesn’t accurately reflect her performance or proficiency in the subject.

Mixed results

Hillsborough Township, a district currently exploring these reforms, is having mixed results. On the first day of teacher in-service in September, an email was sent out to Hillsborough educators informing them of a new effort to begin changing the grading policies. The four proposed changes included: optional homework (currently being practiced in some of the high school classrooms), leniency for late work, a “second chance learning” policy for test retakes and essay refinements, and the no-zero policy.

Other reforms, including limiting the number of graded assignments and removing requirements for advanced placement courses are also being taken up by some schools across the state, but the four new practices being considered by Hillsborough are among the most common. Though talks of grade reform had been going on for some time, many teachers said they felt blindsided by the memo.

History teacher Robert Fenster spoke out at an October meeting with the Hillsborough Board of Education which was recorded and posted on Facebook.

“I have no doubt that the implementation of these practices was well intentioned and that there are some good arguments in favor of second-chance learning, no zeros, etc; however, there are an array of potential problems with the policies as written that haven’t been examined,” Fenster said. He encouraged the board to rescind the memo until teachers and parents could provide more feedback.

In an interview with NJ Spotlight, Fenster said part of the reason why he was so opposed to the way the changes were presented is because some of the logistics for the new edicts require a significant time and energy investment on the part of teachers.

“When a student gets to retake an exam, where are those new questions coming from?” Fenster said. “We don’t have a bank of possible questions or different test versions; we would need to make a completely new assessment.” Fenster said.

Moving too quickly

Although the assistant superintendent of curriculum did establish a committee and task force to review research by prominent education scholars and seek feedback from parents, teachers, and students, Fenster said he thinks the district moved too quickly in issuing the memo and he’s not the only one that feels this way.

Parents hearing about these new changes from their child or their child’s teachers took to Facebook groups like Hillsborough Mom2Mom and Hillsborough Community Forum to express their concerns about the changes taking place in their schools.

Jeremy Hirsch, a member of the Hillsborough Community Forum who has stepkids in the school district wrote “I can’t help but think this is yet another way we are coddling our kids. When I was a kid, I studied for tests. If I didn’t study, I didn’t do well. There were no do-overs. If I didn’t understand something, I asked for help. For kids who have anxiety about tests … I hate to say it, but life doesn’t get any easier. Life is full of tests — literal and figurative ones. They need to learn to deal with that fact. Getting them conditioned to being able to do things over isn’t doing them any favors.”

Even some Hillsborough students were unsure about the new grading changes. Emily Wong, 17, a senior at Hillsborough High School and one of Fenster’s students said the no-graded-homework policy has definitely made some kids in her grade — herself included — less likely to do their work.

“I don’t think that the no-grading homework policy is effective or really helps students.” Wong said. “In my more difficult classes I sometimes rely on the homework as a grade booster, it also got me to do the work. If it’s not being checked, it falls down the list of priorities which can then affect our performance in class.”

Fielding complaints

Hillsborough Superintendent Jorden Schiff said the district recognizes parent and teacher complaints and is trying to do more to ease these practices into schools and include more students, teachers, and parents in the implementation process.

Schiff said the practices are not mandatory directives, but rather a launching point to begin a discussion about how students are assessed and what teachers can be doing to encourage and promote effective and comprehensive learning.

Hillsborough isn’t the first district to face concern for these new practices, but other schools have dealt with the criticism differently. Freehold Township, which implemented the no-zero policy in 2013, found the most effective way to implement these grading changes in schools was by issuing a directive to teachers. Superintendent Ross Kasun said for Freehold, the initial pushback was worth it.

“A zero says to kids, ‘learn or I will hurt you.’” Kasun said referring to the “punishment” theory of grading. “Learning is about achieving mastery and if you bomb something along the way, you should be able to demonstrate your effort in some other way. It’s about building kids up and sending them home asking questions.”

But for other schools attempting to enact drastic reform, critical responses led to rollbacks. Teachers in the Montgomery High School Science Department back in 2007 decided to change their grading policy after hearing researcher Dylan Wiliam speak at a teacher symposium about formative assessment techniques in European schools.

The Montgomery teachers decided to shrink their graded assignment totals from 12 assessments (homework, quizzes, classwork, and so forth) down to two big assessments per quarter thus changing how the final grade would be calculated. Students were still assigned homework and in-class quizzes, however their answers were not given a numerical grade and did not count toward their average.

“We treat [grades] philosophically, like an athlete approaches a sport,” Montgomery science department supervisor Jason Sullivan said. “Most of the time you’re practicing and it doesn’t count toward your win-loss record.”

Sullivan said assessments were instead used as opportunities for formative feedback and self-reflection. What’s more, if a student did not perform well on one of their two major course assessments, they had the opportunity to review their mistakes, attend study sessions, and retake the exam — a form of “second chance learning” currently being discussed in Hillsborough. According to Sullivan, he would see students go from a 75 to a 90 with this approach and demonstrate significant gains in comprehension.

Lightning rod

Shortly after establishing this new policy however, Sullivan said the science department became a lightning rod for parent concerns like those of Jeremy Hirsch. The ensuing phone calls proved too much for teachers and administrators and eventually, the school pulled away from the assessment reform policies and returned to an eight-to-10-assignment practice. Sullivan said if he had it his way, Montgomery would be a “no-zero” school, but parental concern isn’t something educators can ignore.

And it’s not just district schools that are experimenting with new assessment policies. Some charter schools in the state have been successfully using them for a while.

Griselda Almonte-Delgado, a science teacher who taught at Paulo Freire Charter school in Newark said in her classroom last year, the no-zero policy improved students’ performance and self-confidence.

“A kid who gets a 30 loses hope, he thinks ‘I’m never going to make it.’” Almonte-Delgado said. “I like the policy because it gives students the opportunity to say ‘I can do better.’ If you think about a kid going from a 90 to a 100, well that’s only 10 points. But for a kid to go from a 0 to a 60 that’s a lot harder. But if they [start at] a 60, it’s easier to say ‘I can boost my grade to get a 70. It’s all about giving them the opportunity.’”

As it stands, these new grading policies are still in their infancy in New Jersey but are popping up in different variations and at a broad range of sources across the state. Some, like Montgomery, are teacher-driven and guided by the district while others, like Freehold, originate in top-down directives from the district that include teacher development programs and implementation instructions. Some include multiple types of reform, while others isolate one aspect of grading they’d like to change. Though Hillsborough has not yet put official guidelines in place, they are quickly learning that no district has all the answers.

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