Hernando County's School Board is considering resorting to new math so that zero equals 40 percent. This is a misguided attempt at dropout prevention that will lead to inflated grades and deflated student accountability. It also sends the wrong message that not doing the work is little different from trying to do it.
Under a proposed policy scheduled to be voted upon by the Hernando School Board later this month, teachers would be required to give elementary students a minimum grade of 40 out of 100 for each assignment even if the pupil deserves a zero for not doing the work. Students who bomb a test or hand in inferior work would get no score lower than 49.
Advocates say it will engage the borderline students to try harder rather than giving up. Under current guidelines, one or two missed assignments can bring a failing course grade, and failure in the classroom can eventually lead to children quitting school. It's a feel-good theory, but evidence that simply removing zeros from the grade book will reduce the dropout rate is hard to find.
Opponents contend it's a policy that rewards laziness — essentially awarding nearly a half credit for not doing work — and is aimed more at appeasing parents of the underperformers than promoting educational achievement. Grade inflation is a distinct possibility. If ignoring the work is worth 40 points, teachers will be inclined to puff up the scores of students who make some attempt — even if it is substandard — at completing assignments. Some might even suggest that trying to keep kids engaged in school by giving them points for doing nothing is an attempt to polish school accountability grades and the resumes of administrators.
This is not a new debate nor exclusive to Hernando County, though it is the first district in the Tampa Bay region to consider such a policy. In Texas, a state senator introduced a bill to prohibit districts from establishing such no-fail policies. Last month, a school board in Ohio tabled its vote on the same idea after a board member pushed to expand a proposed one-year pilot program at a single school to encompass the entire district.
Giving a 40 to a student who deserves a zero for blowing off an assignment will not motivate him or her to buckle down. It suggests doing nothing is still worth something. Would the district also consider giving two days pay to a teacher who skipped out of work for a week?
A restrictive grading policy also can limit teacher flexibility in the classroom. Educators already have the option of marking on bell curves for tests or dropping the lowest score for every student when calculating quarterly or semester grades. Those are more appropriate grading methods, to be used at a teacher's discretion, than a top-down districtwide formula that lowers the standards for everyone.
Here's the message the Hernando School Board should send to students: Not doing your schoolwork has consequences, and it is significantly better to do your best and fall short than to not try at all.