The question of weather a mark of zero is fair or appropriate in no a simple one but for the purpose of this discussion lets just say that we are talking about a student getting a zero on a test either for not attending to work, failing to attend an exam, or as a punitive measure for some other activity.
Before we talk about Zero’s we need to discuss what grades really mean. So take a minute what do they mean to you? What does that number between 1-100 or some other fraction really tell you about what you know, what skills you have or what you have achieved in general? In general I need to express and divulge that I have a bias to begin with against the factory floor model of assessing student progress by adding up work samples and dividing by a dividend which represents the complete understanding of an entire subject. I believe that there is no single number that can adequately describe any students understanding of any subject. Instead I subscribe to the notion that there are certain “postholes” in education and in all courses or subjects which are requirements at the end of a course and that any student may be called competent if they achieve them.
Please pardon me while I use a metaphor to describe my case. If you were to take your car in for surfacing and after the car had been seen by a mechanic they said your car scored 80/100 what would you think? I know that if it was the paint or the rust over a wheel I would not be concerned but breaks or a hole in a gas tank I would be very concerned. This metaphor is an extension of the inane idea that you can describe a diverse and complex situation with a single distilled number based on few standards, and still have an understanding of what it means. As a parent I know that when my son get’s his first report card I will be asking what the grades mean, what are my child’s Strengths, Challenges, and Next Steps. Does my child have the skills necessary to progress to the next grade/course? I for one will not be satisfied with a number or letter or code which describes his progress.
Back to the Zero, a zero basically means that you have none of a given attribute, nothing, not some but the absence of any. As a teacher and administrator I can tell you that the absence of any skill in any amount is something so rare that you may be eligible for a nobel prize if you were able to successfully demonstrate a situation where the resultant was in fact zero. In all likelihood however your zero most likely means that you have not found a way to measure someone’s ability or that they have not been measured at all. Grades are not punishment, they are not something that should be done to students, they are intended to be used to describe a students ability, their strengths and anything else is fraudulent and educational misconduct in my opinion.
Giving students choices, empowering them and providing multiple ways of demonstrating their understanding is the only way you can truly know what they know. Remember that it is ok to say that you don’t know what they know and that due to lack of evidence you do not know or do not have evidence but if you assign a zero you are saying that you do in fact know and are willing to add that misunderstanding to their total “score” which sums their understanding and present it as fact, which would be fraudulent.
Everything we do as educators should promote more positive outcomes for students. There are those who believe that a zero teaches a lesson, that somehow this motivates students to be more timely, or be more studious, I am here to say that that assertion is nonsense and that assigning zero’s is of little consequence to those who have endured this treatment, furthermore a zero provides an excuse to disengage and refuse to relearn or learn new skills.
That’s about all I have to say about that.