Grading the Grading Arguments

Recently, Daniel Buck, a Fordham Institute Teaching Fellow, argued against grading policies that arbitrarily place a lower limit on student scores of 50 points on a 100-point scale.  Buck’s piece elicited a response from Douglas Reeves. The Buck-Reeves exchange and the very mention of Zero Grades incited a response from Scott Marion. Thinking about their arguments while driving along I-95 led to my post today. You see how this works.

Reading their posts, I found myself focusing not on the question of whether teachers should assign scores of 0, but rather on the arguments each author was making in support of their position on the issue. Therefore, instead of using this post simply to place my thumb on one side or the other of the 100-point scale argument, I thought a more useful exercise would be to grade their grading arguments.

It’s important to note that I said “grade their grading arguments” because as any teacher worth their salt knows, we assign grades to student work, not to students.

When you think in terms of grading students, all sorts of bad things can happen. First off, the three authors are male. They would probably be a little argumentative and disruptive in class, so there are points off for that. And as much as Scott Marion would like us to believe that the debate about zero grades is, at its core, a topic for math class, it is not; so, no extra “male math points” will be given out here.

But I have to give Daniel Buck some credit for actually being a teacher (as well as an author and Fordham Institute Teaching fellow). Douglas Reeves deserves credit for stepping up to defend a statement he made in an article nearly two decades ago. Not to mention that his name evokes memories of Superman (two of them), so there’s that. And Scott Marion, well, he keeps me on my toes and there’s a certain level of conflict of interest at play, so he gets some bonus points as well.

I’ll start each of them off with 50 points on my arbitrary 100-point scale.

Daniel Buck

Summarizing the goals of “no zero” grading policies, Buck writes:

It’s meant to encourage kids, of course, and not completely torpedo their GPAs. It’s part of being nice and progressive, considerate of students’ feelings and respectful of their egos. 

Concise and accurate statement.

I’ll give that an “A”.

Commenting on a large portion of the 100-point scale being allocated to a failing grade, he states:

Proportionality is no clear determinant of fairness or justness. I want a surgeon to know far more than 60 percent of their craft, but a Major League Baseball player who gets a hit 60 percent of the time would set the all-time record. 

… D represents the barest minimum of what a school or teacher considers acceptable by way of student learning. Below that is completely unacceptable, deserving of no credit, no points, no reward.

Good point about the surgeon. Not sure how the baseball player fits in, but I like baseball and I’m familiar with the “batter who fails six out of ten times” aphorism.

I’ll give it an “81”.

Next, Buck refers to “one historical review of grading practices” and then describes in great detail grading on a curve.

For making me feel really old, that gets a “C-“.

Buck describes what the current system is intended to do:

so, the current system tilts toward mastery, even excellence, thereby incentivizing students to more than mere completion.

He talks about the many unintended consequences of artificially capping the lower end of the scale. Having had to clean up the mess associated with capping the original MCAS reporting scale so that the “Failing” category wasn’t larger than the others, I found this portion of Buck’s argument particularly compelling.

It gets a “95”.

Buck cites the “Chesteron’s Fence” thought experiment in calling for caution in abandoning the current grading system without fully understanding why it exists in the first place and without having a clear plan to replace it. Our ignorance of its purpose does not mean it serves none.

Good use of a thought experiment. “A-”.

He then acknowledges the problems with the current grading system, describes several possible alternatives that are worthy of additional research, each of which “carries its own tradeoffs”, and calls for caution, research, and forethought when implementing education policy.

I have to give that argument an “A”.

Douglas Reeves

Because Buck cited Reeves 2004 Kappan article, The Case Against Zero, Reeves succinctly explains the reasoning behind his argument in the original article.

I argued that the zero, when combined with the use of the average to calculate the final grade, leads to mathematically inaccurate distortions in determining the student grade. 

For his summary of the argument: “A”.

But here is where I start to see some cracks in the case against zero. Is the real problem the grade of zero or how that grade is being used within the current system.

That part of the argument gets at most a “B”.

Later, Reeves makes it clear that the problem is “not just the zero”.

“the problem is not just the zero, but the default of electronic grading systems to the average. This is why the zero becomes the academic death penalty. Far from incentivizing students to be diligent, the zero, when combined with the average, tells the student that all the blather about resilience and perseverance that they hear from their teachers is just so much hot air.”

So, maybe our problem is not with the grade of zero, but with electronic grading systems and averages. OK, let’s argue against those.

Avoiding that argument, however, by eliminating zeroes, that gets a “71”.

And the absolute low point in Reeves’ argument has to be:

If F’s, zeroes, and point deductions were effective consequences, then after a few centuries of these experiments in student motivation, all student work in 2022 should be on time and perfect. I know of no teachers on the planet who make such a claim.

Doug, Douglas, Dr. Reeves. Seriously. You’re better than that. This argument is the equivalent of saying that because we taught generations of other kids to read and do math, we don’t need to teach this generation. Or because we trained other puppies, my new puppy is not going to eat my slippers and library books and make a mess of the carpet.

Sorry that argument gets an “F”, perhaps even a “0”.

Reeves quickly rebounds with a solid argument about alternatives to using grades to motivate students and describes how “schools around the nation have been very clever in creating consequences that are effective” and result in students completing the work – which was the original goal.

Students crave freedom and independence. These are consequences that work when threats of F’s, zeroes, and point deductions are futile.

This portion of Reeves’ argument gets a solid “A-“.

Finally, Reeves discusses the problems associated with the practice of scoring, or grading, all of a student’s work from the beginning of the learning process, and then computing an average of all of those scores to produce a “final grade”.

“Our grading systems should reward response to feedback and quit with the fantasy that every student gets things right the first time. “

What does that final grade based on an average score represent? What does it tell us about the proficiency of the surgeon? What impact does the practice of scoring and averaging all work have on the learning process?

All of these are extremely important questions about grades and grading practices. All of them also go well beyond the practice of assigning zero grades.

I’ll give “90” for the importance of the argument against averages and “70” for its relevance to the case against zero, so overall, an “80”.

Scott Marion

mathematics-gceb31ae8f_1920That brings us to Scott Marion and his “Zero Tolerance for Zeroes”.

Marion’s post is one of those pieces of writing that is challenging to grade. We’ve all seen them (and written them). We are fully 800 words into the 1,200-word piece (you know, about 65%) before he actually begins to tell us why he has no tolerance for zero grades. I’ll have to have a chat with his editor.

I am tempted to assign a grade of “Off Topic” to the first part of Marion’s post, but in those opening 800 words, he provides a thoughtful, thorough summary of the many problems associated with current grading practices and policies.

He cites research and experts.

He questions the value of typical homework assignments.

He displays self-effacing humor. [It’s important to me to remind him here that he has a great sense of humor.]

Marion also provides a somewhat gratuitous plug for “Derek Briggs’ terrific new (2022) book, Historical and Conceptual Foundations of Measurement in the Human Sciences: Credos and Controversies,” although Marion’s plug is not nearly as gratuitous as this plug. The book is a must read.

And Scott establishes his credentials, “as a measurement professional, dad, and school board member for many years”, a required element in any education policy argument.

When Marion does get to his case against zero and the reason behind his zero tolerance for zeroes, he offers his own thought experiment.

A simple thought experiment might help explain my complaint with the “100-point scale.” Assuming assignments are equally weighted, the average of scores of 0 and 100 would be 50. But if we convert these numbers to grades using the scale above and I asked you to compute the average of an A and F, most everyone would say a C. Clearly a 50 is not a C.

A student subjected to the 100-point scale would have to score 100% on two additional assignments to reach a C average (75% in this case). When we switch between two metrics (i.e., percentages and grades) intended to mean similar things and get wildly different results, something is off with one or both metrics.

Marion makes a compelling argument about the issues associated with averaging scores and the need for coherence between number and letter grades.

Some people, however, may be fine with the idea that it takes three scores of 100 to offset a 0 and arrive at a simple average of 75 – particularly if all of the scores being averaged were test scores. Most teachers at least try to assign weights to different contributors to a student’s grade. Homework, for example, may be capped at 15%, softening the impact of 0’s in homework on the overall, final grade.

With regard to the dueling thought experiments, I have to give a slight edge to Buck, so Marion gets a “B+” for his.

Finally, Marion ends his post by invoking the spirit of Ronald Reagan (sure to please the Fordham folks) and linking zero grading policies to the evils of the former Soviet Union.

To paraphrase Ronald Reagan, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear up that grading scale!” 

(Although many of us know that it’s a different Berlin Wall speech that plays in Marion’s mind each time he steps up to a podium.)

I will give that stellar ending a grade of “C” – short for “CCCP”.


Every good report card includes a comments section, so this post is no exception.

The common thread across the three posts is that current grading policies and practices are broken. I would also make the claim that all three authors agree that zero grades are far from the biggest grading problem to be solved.

In K-12 education, there is no common understanding about the purpose of grades and grading. There is not a shared belief about what a final grade for a term, semester, or school year means or should mean.

I think that my biggest takeaway from the three posts is that we continue to attempt to get by applying band-aids like “no zero grades” policies to fix larger issues with grading practices and policies.  Why do we do that?  Well, because we’re American – treating the symptom, ignoring the disease is what we do best. And as Buck points out, in the end, despite all of the flaws with grading, GPA does still seem to correlate with things that we consider important.  Ultimately, however, band-aids, “no zero” policies, and other patches are not going to be enough. We’re going to have to address the underlying problem.

Images by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Published by Charlie DePascale

Charlie DePascale is an educational consultant specializing in the area of large-scale educational assessment. When absolutely necessary, he is a psychometrician. The ideas expressed in these posts are his (at least at the time they were written), and are not intended to reflect the views of any organizations with which he is affiliated personally or professionally..

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