It was an awfully long list. Many seventh- and eighth-graders were slated to fail that spring — far more than anyone expected.
I was a rookie district administrator in Connecticut. My superintendent was a veteran educator who had been leading school systems for years.
"Look into it," he said.
I did. Nearly 70 percent of our failing students had scored proficient or higher on our state assessments in reading, writing and math. A quarter had scored at the highest possible level.
A closer look showed many had refused to do their homework. Others had difficulty keeping their notebooks organized.
End-of-year letter grades told us little about the problems, or students' actual knowledge and skill levels. But we knew we were about to fail, and possibly hold back, some of our most capable students.
I was reminded of that spring during the recent debate over the Hernando County school district's proposal to eliminate zeros from the elementary grading scale. The lowest grade a student could receive, even for missing assignments, would be a 40. The plan, in its bare-bones form, has unleashed a firestorm of criticism so fierce that the School Board won't even take a vote on it. After all, isn't it a scandalous lowering of standards to award points to students who don't do their homework? But that begs a deeper question, really: What is the point of a grade?
"Please, Miss, just give me a zero." I can't tell you how many times I heard that as a classroom teacher. To avoid work, some students would rather just get a zero.
But that's the easy way out, says Doug Reeves, education researcher and founder of the Leadership and Learning Center, which provides leadership training and consulting to school systems.
In many ways, the focus on zero versus 40 misses the bigger picture. "If you can say, because we have used zeros for the last 30 years, therefore today, students have a better work ethic, I'd be in favor of them," Reeves says.
He believes that districts need to set aside time before, during and after school and hold students accountable for doing the work.
"People characterize my position as being soft on kids," he said. "My position is harsh, especially from a kid's point of view. Having to do the work is worse than getting a zero."
Experts say common grading practices, although entrenched in the American psyche, are highly subjective.
All over the alphabet
When Reeves goes to teacher conferences, he often pulls out the education researcher's equivalent of a parlor game. He gives teachers a list of grades, including missed assignments, homework and tests, and asks them to determine a final course grade. Based on individual preferences and grading idiosyncrasies — some drop the missed assignments, some refuse to include the homework, and others weigh the tests more heavily — the results always come back the same: across the map, from A to F.
Grades frequently don't correlate with standardized tests. Despite an overall rise in grades, reading skills of 12th-graders decreased significantly between 1992 and 2005, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.
Conversely, in Connecticut, our seventh- and eighth-graders scored well on the standardized assessments but failed several of their classes.
A grade's meaning
So what is the purpose of grades? Are they solely a measure of mastery of a subject? If that's true, the student's attitude or work ethic doesn't matter so long as he knows the material and can demonstrate that, perhaps on a final exam.
Are they a measure of a student's diligence and hard effort? If so, can a student earn a high grade by trying hard but never truly understanding the material?
Of course, the truth is both of these extremes and everything in between.
According to one study, teachers grade for at least six purposes: to communicate achievement levels to parents and others; provide feedback to students; select students for higher education or specific programs; give students incentives to work hard; evaluate the effectiveness of instruction; and provide evidence of students' lack of effort or inappropriate behavior.
But using the zero raises that last category — punishment — above all the others, according to Thomas R. Guskey, a professor of education at the University of Kentucky at Lexington.
"A student has to get nine perfect papers to recover from a single zero," he said. "It stacks the odds so much and makes it almost impossible for them to do well."
Such policies punish students academically for what amounts to a behavior infraction, he said. And grades wind up not measuring what they're designed to measure — learning.
One alternative to the zero is assigning an incomplete grade for missing work, Guskey said.
"It's serious and immediate," he said. "They are required to attend a study session that day. There's a consequence, but you make it an educationally sound consequence. That way the kids know they can't get away with it."
Grading and grades are deeply ingrained in our beliefs about school. One principle at work in such a situation is status quo bias, said Dan Ariely, behavioral economist at Duke and the author of Predictably Irrational, the Hidden Forces that Shape our Decisions.
Because we've done something a certain way for so long, we overvalue it, he said. Even when presented with evidence, we still don't want to switch our belief system.
Another principle at work is our confirmatory style of searching for information, Ariely said. People are constantly looking for information that supports their viewpoint.
"It's very hard for people to listen to the opposite side," he said.
When our belief system about school is threatened, the most potent accusation we can make is that the new idea encourages mediocrity. Nothing shelves an educational idea quicker than accusing it of lowering standards. No one wants to be on the side of dumbing down school.
Many nations that outpace the United States on international tests separate homework, academic achievement and behavior on report cards.
"In the U.S., we are so far behind the rest of the world in dealing with these issues," said Gusky. He and many others advocate for a clean separation between academic and behavioral grades. This path not only provides better communication, it is also more likely to hold up under legal challenges.
"Educators are getting into trouble today," he said. "Kids are punished academically through a grade for what has been a behavior infraction."
That spring in Connecticut, when we began to unpack the high failure rate at our middle school, we were surprised by what we saw. We expected students on that list to need remediation and academic support. Instead, most were disengaged and had tangled with their teachers frequently about tasks they considered busywork. In the end, nearly all of those failing students attended summer school and went on to the next grade.
We identified student engagement, homework and grading policies as our highest priorities for discussion and professional development. And we took responsibility for getting kids motivated. Our students had to improve, but so did we.
For the rookie administrator, it was an important reminder that single letter grades tell only a fraction of the story.
Times researcher Shirl Kennedy contributed to this report. Shary Lyssy Marshall is former teacher, principal and curriculum director. She lives and writes in the Tampa Bay area. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.